DUMMERSTON VERMONT – After more than 10 years of struggling to stay in the United States legally with her wife, Takako Ueda can breathe free: Her green card is here.
Ueda, 58, a Japanese national, and her wife, Frances Herbert, 53, were among the first same-sex couples to receive immigration benefits after a June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, often referred to as DOMA.
“I feel a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. It’s such a basic thing, but I can be ordinary now. I can live out loud,” Ueda said.
She and Herbert have been in a committed relationship for more than a decade and were legally married in 2011. Much of that time was spent struggling to keep Ueda’s status legal.
DOMA, signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, barred the U.S. government from recognizing same-sex marriages, including for the purposes of family-based immigration petitions.
For Ueda this meant that even after the couple were legally married in Vermont, she could not receive a spousal visa.
A month after receiving Ueda’s green card, the couple are just beginning to navigate their new reality.
“We used a lot of . . . energy to stay afloat. . . . I was so scared to be asked ‘How are things going?’ ” said Herbert. Now people approach her with congratulations.
After living for so long with the stress of keeping up a course load to maintain her student visa and the uncertainty around her immigration status, Ueda is finally unpacking the boxes she has kept in the attic.
At their modest home in the woods of southern Vermont, the couple have a special place for the green card. They keep it in a small meditation room, along with a small family altar and the half-meter-tall stack of paperwork they filed to try to gain her legal residence and later to prevent her deportation.
Downstairs, the couple keep the letters of congratulations from their state lawmakers, notes of support from members of their small-town community, and a hand-drawn card from a young neighbor.
Throughout the uncertain journey, it was the support from their state and community that made all the difference.
One important moment came last year, when it seemed that Ueda could be deported. Around 300 of their fellow residents gathered at the annual town meeting to pass a resolution of support for the couple.
Ezekial Goodband, the town select board member who introduced the resolution, said the town felt it had to do something to keep Ueda from being deported.
“They were a part of the fabric of our community. To take her away would leave us a little bit poorer,” said Goodband.
Herbert expressed a wish that LGBT people would be equally supported in small-town Japan.
In 2011, Ueda agreed to be interviewed by Kyodo News on condition that her name and face not be used for fear of a negative reaction from her family back home.
Even now, she says it is still too difficult for her to speak to relatives about it. But she says she would like to have some connection to Japan now that she can travel back.
“I’ve been helped by so many people here so I think I’d like to help LGBT people in Japan,” she said.
The happy ending to their story is one shared by increasing numbers of same-sex binational and multinational couples around the U.S.
After the Justice Department announced in February 2012 it would no longer defend the law in court, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began keeping track of all the immigration petitions it denied to same-sex couples.
Of 149 petitions originally denied, around half have now been granted, said Tom Plummer, a staff attorney for human rights group Immigration Equality.
Though the plaintiff in the DOMA Supreme Court case was seeking the same tax benefits extended to heterosexual married couples, the ruling covered all areas of federal law.
Ueda and Herbert along with four other couples had filed their own federal lawsuit, which is now effectively over because their petitions have been approved or reopened.