On Thursday, May 9th 2013 a bi-partisan committee of 18 Senators began the debate on immigration reform. As part of this reform, Senator Leahy of Vermont filed two amendments that would give bi-national same-sex couples the opportunity to apply for a green card.
These amendments have encountered opposition from several Republican senators that fear they could “kill the bill.” Entrenched in the controversy of the reform itself, it could be easy to forget the reason for these amendments: numerous couples have been torn a part or displaced because the U.S. government will not grant same-sex partners citizenship. Couples like Jennie Griffin and Sara Trehearn.
Trehearn, an Australian citizen, came to the United States eighteen years ago after receiving a job as a camp counselor at Fairview Lake YMCA camp in New Jersey. It was here that she met Jennie Griffin, the camp director.
“I remember when she first walked into the dining hall I thought she was very cute,” Griffin recalled with a smile. Soon thereafter, the two began their relationship.
Trehearn chuckled as she said, “I remember Jennie saying that this could be a summer fling…but eighteen years later, here we are.”
Griffin and Trehearn have spent the last eighteen years fighting to stay together. Trehearn received summer visas to work as a summer camp counselor and then eighteen-month work visas through Fairview Lake as she assumed higher roles in the camp.
All the while, Trehearn made certain she never violated the constraints of her visa.
“I’m a rule follower,” Trehearn emphasized. “I’ve always done everything by the book. If I have to leave, I leave.”
As their relationship grew more serious, they began thinking more and more about the future. Then on April 13th, 2003, they decided to make their union official.
“We knew legally we couldn’t get married, but it was a way to celebrate our love for each other, and our friends who love us for who we are,” Trehearn said.
Despite their commitment to each other, the couple continued to live in constant fear of separation because Trehearn was still not a U.S. citizen.
Every trip between Australia and the United States is a miserable, anxiety-filled experience for Trehearn. Referring to the process of re-entering America, she explained, “Whenever we come into descent in LA, my stomach starts going because they can still deny you.”
As a precaution during these trips, lawyers advised Trehearn to avoid having any evidence in her possession that could show she had ties to the United States- in other words, any sign of her relationship with Griffin.
“If they think you want to stay in America, they won’t give you a visa,” Griffin said. “Sarah was going to bring home a wedding album to show friends in Australia but she was worried if they found it, they may not let her back in the country.”
This concern relates to section 21b in the Immigration and Nationality Act, which subjects a foreign national to a strike on his or her visa application if they appear to be an “intending immigrant”- an individual who intends to stay in the United States indefinitely.
It was for this reason that Griffin and Trehearn decided to refrain from making their marriage official, even when a number of states passed legislation to allow same-sex couples this opportunity.
“It all came down to the fact that, if for some reason we drove to New York or Massachusetts and got married, it could have been a red flag,” Trehearn explained. “Who knows if all the databases are linked?”
In spite of all of these challenges, Griffin and Trehearn continued to fight to stay together.
Hearing the United States had a critical shortage of nurses; Trehearn decided to pursue a long held interest and enrolled in a nursing degree program.
“Going to school was a cover, because I really wanted to be with Jennie,” Sarah admitted. “But I also love what I do, so it was a win-win.”
This gave Trehearn the opportunity to remain in the country on a student visa and pursue a career she was passionate about.
From here the couple continued to build a happy and wonderful life together. After graduating from William Patterson in 2009, Trehearn received a job at St. Claire’s hospital in New Jersey, and Griffin continued to move up in the ranks at her job at Fairview Lake.
“Since our relationship began at camp, and then we lived there forever, there was so much of it that was about a big community of people,” said Griffin.
Bob Kahle, Griffin’s former boss at Fairview Lake Camp, was very close to both Trehearn and Griffin.
“Everyone that Jennie has ever met would say she is a friend. She welcomes people into her heart and into her life with a very unique style,” said Kahle. “And Sarah is one of those people that will do what is needed. If she can do it, she will do it to the best of her ability.
After seeing them together countless times, Kahle added, “When they were together, they were just stronger.”
In addition to the thousands of children whose lives were touched by Trehearn and Griffin at Fairview Lake camp over the years, the couple decided to help more children by becoming foster parents.
Mary Hope Griffin, Jennie’s sister, was thrilled when they made this decision. After sending her own daughters, Helen and Julia, to Fairview Lake camp every summer, she confidently said, “Both of them have this great love of taking care of children. They fostered three children, and they did everything in their power to make sure they went back to their families happy and healthy. It was very moving to watch.”
Nevertheless, despite the beautiful life they had created together in New Jersey, the fact that they had taken every precaution imaginable, and how they had followed every rule the U.S. government laid out- in February of 2012, Trehearn received word that her H-1B Nonimmigrant Worker Petition Visa had been denied. Her nursing credentials did not match what the Federal government required.
“When it all came crashing down, it came crashing down in a ton of bricks,” Trehearn lamented. “I probably cried every night for the first few months. I didn’t want to do anything, sometimes I still don’t. It’s very depressing.”
Although she had been approved for an I-140 Immigrant Petition for Schedule A Worker Visa in April of 2012, this did not give her the ability to stay in the country. She had to wait for her number to come up in a long line of people awaiting green cards. This could take years.
Adam Cox, a professor of immigration law at NYU Law School, explained that situations like Trehearn’s are not uncommon.
“It’s because there are huge backlogs and lags in this process,” said Cox. “For two reasons- one, the process is very cumbersome, so labor certification takes forever. It’s a big inefficiency in the process. The other part is that there is a queue. There are quotas, and no more than a certain number of people in each visa category can be admitted each year. So even if labor certification has been approved, there may not be a visa slot this year and they have to wait for a future year.”
Everyone in Jennie and Sarah’s lives, friends and family alike, were shocked at the news.
Another of Jennie’s sisters, Maura Griffin, was one such shocked relation, “I didn’t think her visa application would be denied. They were foster mothers, taxpayers; Sarah was a swing-shift nurse in an underserved area. So there was definitely a period of complete denial.”
This may have been surprising, but situations similar to Griffin and Trehearn’s arise all too often.
“Unfortunately we encounter this all the time,” said Steven Ralls, the communications director for Immigration Equality- an organization that focuses on helping same-sex couples separated due to immigration problems.
“There are countless numbers of couples who are forced into exile. There is no way of knowing exactly how many. But we do know there are very large communities of exiled gay people throughout Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, and through most of Europe.”
If Trehearn and Griffin were a heterosexual couple, this would not be an issue.
Cox explained, “Had they been legally married, and had the immigration code accepted the state’s definition of marriage, then they wouldn’t have had any problem.”
However since the immigration laws have yet to be reformed and the U.S. has not deemed DOMA unconstitutional- Griffin and Trehearn were left with limited options.
While for a brief moment they considered trying to fight for a chance to keep Trehearn in the country on the basis of their relationship, they had very little time to do so. The fear of repercussions was too great.
“I was afraid we would never see each other again. What if, we did something and Sarah had to leave the country. Then Australia was pissed off and didn’t allow me in,” Jennie said.
While there have been some cases of the Obama administration granting same-sex couples deferred action for one to two years, this is the most that can be done.
“The ability of the Obama administration to help couples is very limited,” Ralls explained, “Although they can stop deportation, they can not grant the most important benefit which is sponsorship or a green card. They still have no legal presence and they have no path to residency based on their relationship.”
For Trehearn to fight this, she feared the risk of being considered an illegal for staying in the country.
Ming Wong, an attorney from the National Center for Lesbian rights, has encountered couples in Griffin and Trehearn’s situation that opt to stay in America, despite the potential risks.
“Some couples stay in the U.S., but the non-U.S. citizen partner is either undocumented or falls “out of status” by overstaying a student or visitor visa so they can stay together,” said Wong. “But the non-U.S. citizen partner is then limited in the kind of work they can do, and how openly they can live.”
This was not the way Trehearn wanted to approach the situation.
“I didn’t want to rock the boat any more,” she explained. “I was already freaked out.”
So instead, Trehearn and Griffin were forced to make other plans. After a lot of thought, they realized the only option to stay together was for Griffin to leave her life behind in New Jersey and try to join Trehearn in Australia.
“We didn’t know that we would ever live in the same country again. It was contingent upon me getting an Australian visa, and there are no guarantees,” Griffin said.
Luckily in August 2012, Griffin received word that she had been approved for a two year Australian visa that could be made permanent on the basis of her and Trehearn’s relationship. Unlike the United States, the Australian government recognizes same-sex relationships for the purpose of migration and citizenship.
Kahle witnessed the struggle Griffin endured as she processed this bittersweet news.
“I was sad because I knew she was conflicted,” he said. “She was in the job that was created for her, and perfect for her. But she couldn’t do it with her whole heart, because part of her heart was missing.”
Kahle added: ”It’s different when there’s a breakup in your relationship or when someone chooses to leave. But Sarah didn’t choose to leave and therefore Jennie didn’t want to leave.”
Learning Griffin would be leaving in addition to Trehearn was especially emotional for her family.
“There was a lot of serious crying when Jennie left,” Mary Hope Griffin recalled. “I think part of the way we process it is thinking it [the move] won’t last forever. Somehow we have to believe this is temporary.”
Maura Griffin similarly struggled with Jennie’s departure, “I was heart-broken. I felt powerless and hopeless. I knew my baby sister was going to move to Australia, I knew it was not something she or Sarah wanted, and I knew that it was unjust. I knew, also, that there was nothing I could do to change it.”
While the difficulty of leaving was severe, the thought of not being with Trehearn was exponentially more awful for Griffin. Her decision was made.
So after nine months of stressful packing, working full time, and coping with the impossible time difference, Griffin and Trehearn were reunited in December of 2012.
Although the couple constantly repeated how grateful they are to the Australian government for granting Griffin a visa and thus the chance to be together, they hope one day they will be able to resume the lives they put on hold in America.
“For the last 18 years I’ve been in New Jersey. That’s my home,” said Trehearn. “It’s my home.”
While many Americans are both hopeful and optimistic for change- whether it be reforms to the immigration laws currently being debated or deeming DOMA unconstitutional- in the meantime couples like Griffin and Trehearn are patiently waiting for a miracle.
“We just want to be together,” said Trehearn. “We love each other. Plain and simple.”