July 1987, an “Experiment in International Living,” that’s what they called the homestay trip that I took as a 16-year-old girl from the United States. I stayed with my Irish host family who immediately paired me with their 16-year-old niece, Karen. We became fast friends and found it impossible to say goodbye after my three short weeks in Ireland.
However, life moves forward and time passes. We kept in touch through snail mail for years, finally reconnecting in person in 2001 when I returned to Ireland for a brief vacation. Karen soon followed me to the U.S. for her own holiday that same year, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Learning through that horrible event that life can be short, I returned to Ireland for another visit in February 2002 to explore exactly what this relationship was all about. Two full weeks of inseparable bliss; by the time my flight home landed for the layover from Dublin to Shannon I had decided I couldn’t live without her. I moved to Ireland to be with Karen in July 2002.
For a year I tried unsuccessfully to get a job in Ireland, while Karen had been laid off for months. With money running short and a job offer waiting for me in the States we decided to give it a go back in my home country. In September 2003 Karen moved to the U.S. to be with me. Yay! Or so we thought.
Over nine years and three lawyers later and we are still playing the U.S. visa game. We had to figure out a way for Karen to remain in this country and get her residency but also be able to travel home to visit her family. She started on the Visa Waiver, then applied to a Veterinary Technology Program and got an F-1 visa. She remained on this visa for two years and we were able to travel back to Ireland to visit her first nephew in his first few months of life, for his christening, and shortly after the birth of his brother. However, each time was a grueling event for Karen when passing through immigration. We were split up and Karen was often taken into another private room where she was grilled with questions as to why she was coming to the US, what connections did she have here, why couldn’t she go to school in Ireland. On one occasion they kept her so long that they were calling our names over the PA system over and over to board the plane. Each time, to our relief, she eventually was passed through to enter the U.S. again.
June 2006 we took a trip of a lifetime to Alaska. We unfortunately disembarked the cruise in Vancouver, Canada and flew to Toronto where we had to go through U.S. immigration before we boarded our flight for Philadelphia. As usual procedure, I went through the U.S. line and Karen had to go through the non-US citizen line. Once again we were separated. They took Karen into the inside office. This was a familiar procedure by now for us so I wasn’t too worried until I waited. And waited and waited and waited.
I am sure it was an hour or more I waited not knowing what was going on. Karen on the other hand was being harassed by a U.S. Customs Officer. It was after 5PM and the immigration officers were done for the day and Customs was handling her case. He was very rude and refused to listen to anything Karen had to say. He took her I-94 out of her passport, saying it should have been removed when she left the country. This is not true as we found out later through our lawyer that travel in and out of Canada is allowed on her visa and they do not remove or issue new I-94. The officer finally allowed her entry in to the U.S. but under a 30-day waiver, no new I-94, and rudely told her to get it sorted.
It took us, with the help of our third immigration lawyer, almost a year to get that issue resolved. The lawyer has since assisted us with finding ways to keep Karen in the U.S. legally through training visas, an application for an alien worker visa, and currently another F-1 visa. The problem however, is that the lawyer advised Karen not to travel out of the country. If she did, she would have to go to a U.S. embassy to get her current visa put in her passport.
This may not seem like a big deal – but actually it is. It is up to an individual immigration officer to determine if he/she wants to grant the approved visa. We were advised that it was highly likely that the official would deny the visa on the basis that Karen has lived in the U.S. now for some time on non-immigrant visas, not to mention if they discovered our relationship. So despite the fact that Karen is legally in this country, we do not want to risk the life we have built here and therefore we do not travel out of the US.
Keeping Karen in the U.S. has been expensive: the legal fees and college tuition alone have cost us tens of thousands of dollars. But the real cost has been the loss of time spent with loved ones. We have been fortunate enough that Karen’s family does visit often. But we miss so much. Not just special occasions like weddings, births and milestone birthdays but being together. It has been seven years since Karen and her two siblings have been in the same room together. That is the hard part.
June 2011, we married in Kent, Connecticut. We had a party here in the U.S. to celebrate with all our U.S. friends and family. It would have been wonderful if we could have traveled to Ireland for our honeymoon and had a celebration over there as well.
And so, this “Experiment in International Living” continues with us applying for whatever visa we can to keep Karen’s status legal. Waiting for the alien worker visa to come through, which will give her permanent residency and hoping one day our relationship will be recognized officially – either through Comprehensive Immigration Reform or the repeal of DOMA – so I can apply for a visa based on our marriage,
like heterosexual couples are able to do.