They had spent nearly six years preparing for this moment; so many restless nights and tears shed, frightened about what might happen — to have found love, only to lose each other in the end.
Carlos Gutierrez, a native of Honduras, and his spouse, Justin Hines, of Archbold, Ohio, stood before a federal immigration officer in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Detroit District Office earlier this year. The officer’s job was to decide whether Mr. Gutierrez, whose work visa was about to expire, should be allowed to remain in the United States.
“I was freaking out the whole time,” admits Mr. Hines, a registered nurse who works with trauma victims at ProMedica Toledo Hospital.
Their best hope was if the immigration official recognized the authenticity of the couple’s marriage.
Mr. Gutierrez, 31, and Mr. Hines, 24, were prepared: They had their marriage license, joint apartment lease, credit card, and savings account information. Among the other documentation they presented were copies of Facebook conversations they’d kept since 2008 and photos they’d taken during six trips to Honduras while visiting Mr. Gutierrez’s family.
“I was worried about the interview during our entire relationship,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “But during the interview he didn’t really ask any personal questions.”
Before granting Mr. Gutierrez conditional residency for two years, “The immigration officer told us, ‘You guys should be treated like any other couple; I can see you love each other,’ ” Mr. Hines said.
In two years, Mr. Gutierrez can apply for nonconditional permanent residency. After three years, he can apply for citizenship.
The decision to approve Mr. Gutierrez’s request is ground-breaking for several reasons, said Eugenio Mollo, Jr., managing attorney of law for Toledo’s Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc.
More same-sex couples are getting married now that more states are adopting laws that enable them to do so, he said.
This has spurred a new movement: Binational couples are choosing to get married in states such as California and Iowa where same-sex marriages are legal, and then having the foreign-born spouse apply to the federal government for residency and eventually citizenship, Mr. Mollo said.
Prior to the legalization of same-sex marriages, gay binational couples had no legal recourse, he said.
No national or statewide statistics are available for same-sex binational couples because the federal government doesn’t record whether applicants are gay or heterosexual, said Marilu Cabrera, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Detroit District Office.
“We only look at whether [the application] qualifies according to immigration laws,” Ms. Cabrera said. “We’re not looking to see if it’s a same-sex couple; we’re not going there.”
The first thing a couple needs to determine is whether the foreign-born spouse or person in a relationship qualifies for residency or citizenship, said Mariella Machen, a paralegal who oversees the Immigration Legal Assistance Program for the Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.
Ms. Machen, who guided Mr. Gutierrez and Mr. Hines through each step of the immigration application process, is fully accredited by the board of Immigration Appeals and has more than 30 years of experience working with immigrants in the northwest Ohio area. She is a native of Colombia and is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“I knew they would be approved, there was no doubt about it,” the soft-spoken Ms. Machen said a couple of days after Mr. Gutierrez’s application was approved.
Mr. Hines first contacted ABLE in 2011. At the time the two were dating but not living together.
Mr. Gutierrez was working as an industrial engineer at a company in Royal Oak, Mich. Mr. Hines was attending Owens Community College in Perrysburg Township.
They were encouraged to document their relationship, but they could do nothing else but wait.
The time for action arrived on June 26, 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which legally defined marriage as between male and female only.
One week later, Mr. Gutierrez and Mr. Hines, and their best friend Cassondra Fitzsimmons of Evansport, Ohio, were celebrating the Fourth of July in Toronto.
They were enjoying dinner at the world famous 360 Restaurant, inside Toronto’s CN Tower, when a bottle of champagne arrived at the table.
Mr. Gutierrez asked Mr. Hines to stand with him, and then suddenly he dropped to one knee.
“You make me the happiest person in the world, and I love you with all my heart,” Mr. Gutierrez said as a deafening hush came over the restaurant area. “The moment I met you was the best day of my life, and you’ve changed my life for the better.
“Would you do me the honor of marrying me?”
Mr. Hines’ affirmative response was literally drowned out by the people in the restaurant, some of whom had risen to their feet to cheer and applaud, the two men recall.
One month later they were legally married in a San Diego courthouse.
Now it was time to follow Ms. Machen’s directions: They signed a joint apartment lease and moved in together, on Sept. 18. They opened up joint credit cards and a savings account — all evidence of being involved in a committed relationship.
On Sept. 20, Mr. Gutierrez applied for permission to remain in the United States, citing his marriage as the reason for the request.
Love and happiness
In some ways it all still seems like a dream, Mr. Hines admits.
He and Mr. Gutierrez were strangers when they started dancing together on a club dance floor one night in November, 2008. They went out for pizza afterward. The next day they spent 13 hours talking nonstop on Skype.
“We’re actually recognized by my own country; we’re not second class citizens,” Mr. Hines says now with a trace of relief and disbelief still in his voice. “It feels safer being married. Every child grows up thinking about getting married; being gay, at some point you lose that hope.”
If there’s anything good that comes out of sharing their story, Mr. Hines hopes it’s that people realize that everyone deserves the opportunity to share their lives and love with another human being.
“I think this county is still in need of comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “What they are seeking is nothing different than any other couple.”
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.