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Ear to the Ground

Binational Gay Matrimony Recognized by U.S. Immigration

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Posted on Oct 28, 2013
WehoCity (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tom Knutson and Phan Datthuyawat have been together for 20 years and were married in Sacramento five years ago. Due to DOMA, however, Datthuyawat was denied a green card and thus was unable to leave the U.S. and legally return.

Knutson, a 70-year-old professor emeritus at Cal State Sacramento, is battling cancer, and Datthuyawat is concerned about spending time with his partner and also visiting his elderly mother in Thailand who he hasn’t seen in more than a decade. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage on a federal level, Datthuyawat can finally visit his family in Thailand without worrying about being unable to come back to the U.S. and spend time with his husband during his final days. After an interview with an immigration official Oct. 15, Datthuyawat and Knutson became one of the first binational couples in the United States to have their marriage recognized by the federal government. And, now that the U.S. has rid itself of DOMA and Proposition 8, there will be many others to follow in the couple’s footsteps and live with their beloveds without fear of deportation.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

The Sacramento Bee:

An estimated 36,000 same-sex couples nationwide are waiting for foreign-born partners such as Datthuyawat to get their green cards as spouses of U.S. citizens, according to a UCLA study. Some have chosen self-imposed exile, leaving for countries that have viewed same-sex unions more favorably.

While gay marriage has been legal in some states for several years – and off and on in California – the federal Defense of Marriage Act barred U.S. immigration officials from recognizing same-sex unions. Last January, Datthuyawat’s petition for a green card as Knutson’s husband was denied. They were among 150 same-sex couples “who had reached the end of their rope” and submitted spouse petitions that were denied because of DOMA, said Laura Lichter, former president of the 13,000-member American Immigration Lawyers Association.

All that changed on June 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA, Lichter said.

“These guys are among the first to the be approved. The USCIS has really worked hard to get its guidelines out there after DOMA, and the first cases to get approved were really those under the gun facing deportation.”

One June 26, Knutson raised the rainbow flag outside the couple’s Campus Commons home, and they celebrated with a Thai feast.

He burst into tears when Datthuyawat got his green card approved. For more than a decade, Knutson said he lived in fear “that at midnight, there’s be a knock on the door and they’d be coming to take Phan away.” Datthuyawat – an eternally calm Buddhist – said he “smiled and put on a happy face,” adding, “this is the one I love; wherever he goes, I will go.”

The fear of deportation is justifiable for immigrant same-sex spouses who don’t have their papers….

The USCIS said it is now processing binational same-sex marriages the same way as opposite-sex unions and does not differentiate by orientation. But length of marriage remains a factor, Lichter said. If a couple has been married for less than two years, the government will subject them to more scrutiny to ensure there’s no marriage fraud. That can work against same sex couples who could not marry legally or were reluctant to come forward and publicize the nature of their unions.

“Striking down DOMA didn’t get rid of discrimination and the social stigma,” said Lichter….

Datthuyawat came to Sacramento on a student visa and is now finishing his doctorate in communication at California State University, Sacramento, following in Knutson’s footsteps. Their home is filled with Thai Buddhist music, Asian art and pillows emblazoned with Thai elephants – those with trunks up represent good luck. The one with his trunk down is “reminding us that life is not always good luck,” said Knutson, adding, “if Phan couldn’t return to Thailand, I’d bring Thailand to him.”

Their attorney, Mark Kowalewski, compared the striking down of DOMA to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Now Phan can travel freely, get a Social Security card and is entitled to Social Security benefits, as is any spouse,” he said.

For Knutson, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2012, the demise of DOMA means he will have a loved one to care for him and make end-of-life decisions when the time comes.

“When I’m scared, angry, upset and worried, Phan’s a calming influence,” Knutson said. “The abbot at our Buddhist temple said, ‘Don’t worry about the tiger until the tiger is in the room.’ It’s a relief that we can go back to Bangkok together to see Phan’s family again. We’re all circling the drain, but I can do it with a little more confidence now.”

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