About six years ago, I was on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. At sunset. With the love of my life.
I remember feeling two things really strongly. First, I felt like I was exactly where I wanted to be with the one person I wanted to be with. But the second thing I felt was sick. Because I wasn’t sure there was going to be a way forward for us as a couple.
I met Jose, right here in Sioux City, in the fall of 2000. He was and still is handsome, funny, affectionate, and he’s got this charming accent. It was love at first sight for both of us. We started dating, and after a few years, we bought a home here and we were happy. Life was good. The livin’ was easy. Or so I thought.
What I didn’t know was that, during our happy time together, Jose’s immigration visa had expired. The Defense of Marriage Act kept us from getting married, and I couldn’t sponsor him as a spouse for immigration.
So, on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, he returned to Mexico. He packed a few bags that morning, kissed me goodbye and took a bus from South Sioux City down to where his parents live, outside of Guadalajara. Once he crossed the border into Mexico, he couldn’t come back.
When he left, Jose knew that could happen. I didn’t.
We’d been living apart for about six months before I could go visit him on that beach in Puerto Vallarta. During that time, I came to understand how hopeless our legal situation was. I also learned how lonely a three-story house can feel when you’re the only person living in it. A chair is still a chair but a house is not a home.
As we sat on that beach in Mexico, watching the sunset and sharing a bucket of beers, we talked through our situation and tried to understand our options. Jose could not come home. I could move to Mexico, but I couldn’t make a living there and I wasn’t able to retire anytime soon. So, we could cut our losses and walk away, or we could maintain a long-distance relationship spanning 1,800 miles with me traveling to Mexico just a few times a year.
I couldn’t really see a path forward.
I opened another Corona and asked Jose, “What do you think we should do?” And he did what he always does—he turned the question on me, “What do you think we should do?”
I looked at him, and I looked at the sun setting over the Pacific and I felt like my whole future hinged on what I said next. We sat in silence in the gathering gloom for a few seconds. I sipped my beer and finally said, “I think we just need to keep loving each other.”
And then I waited.
Seconds passed and I worried that I didn’t say the right thing. Finally, Jose said, “I agree.” He’s a man of few words, but his words are like immigrants, they get the job done.
So, we agreed that we would do whatever we needed to do so we could spend our lives together, one way or another, one country or another, no matter what.
The German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “At the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assist you.” And I’ll be damned, shortly after we made this commitment to each other, a bunch of pretty serendipitous s— started happening.
Just a few months later, the Supreme Court announced that they would take on a case reviewing the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Then Mexico legalized same-sex marriage in certain jurisdictions. That made it possible for Jose and I to get married, which we did in Mexico City on March 27, 2013.
That same day, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on DOMA. Three months later, the court struck down a key part of the law that denied marriage rights and benefits to same-sex couples. Finally, we could begin the the immigration process.
We filed our papers nearly five years ago. We provided answers and evidence in response to their initial questions like: did we have a real marriage? Could we prove we’d been in a committed relationship for the past 12 years like we claimed? Could we get testimonials from family and friends? Did we have a record of correspondence, any shared financial interests?
Working with our immigration attorney, we got all that stuff together and submitted it. About 18 months later, our initial application was accepted. That acknowledged my right as a U.S. citizen to sponsor Jose as my spouse for immigration.
But he couldn’t get a visa due to his overstay. So, we applied for an extreme hardship waiver, which required another big pile of evidence. I had to prove on paper that our separation created “extreme hardship”—emotionally, physically, financially, socially. I gathered all of those documents and sent them in. And again, about 18 months later, the hardship waiver was approved.
We thought, great, this means they’re going to issue the visa. Jose will be able to come back up here and we can return to the good life, together.
But at the immigrant visa interview, the consular officer told Jose that his case was being put into administrative review. These are not two words you want to hear. It’s among other two-word phrases like “venereal disease” and “breathalyzer test” that you hope will never be applied to your life situation. In immigration circles, administrative review is known as “the black hole.” Cases just disappear in there for years at a time and that’s what happened to us.
No one would tell us why his case received that designation or how long it would take to do the review. We just had to wait. Which we did.
Two more years ticked by.
Finally we heard back. They wanted more documentation. This time about a period in the 1980’s when Jose was living in Mexico with relatives. Also, could we document all instances of international travel either of us had engaged in over the past 17 years? And could we verify dates, duties and earnings from all employment?
So we gather that information, submit it and wait. Again.
Over the past five years, Jose has had four interviews at the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, Mexico, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. We’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees, filing fees, document processing and travel.
And we’re still separated. We’re still waiting. We’re still spending way too little time together.
Life is still pretty good, but the livin’ ain’t all that easy to be honest.
Sometimes I wonder if I had known how difficult this whole thing was going to be, would I have made the same choice that I did on the beach in Puerto Vallarta? Would I still say, “We just need to keep loving each other?”
The only answer is yes. Because there was no other choice to make. Love is love is love is love. You work through the difficulties. You adapt. You adjust. You persevere. You persist.
You make the commitment and then you make yourself believe that the universe, in its own good time, will finally conspire to assist you.
Brian Mathers is the executive director of the Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation. He’s also a founding member of Play It Forward, a troupe of local musicians that perform for charitable events and worthy causes.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy.
Our next show is Friday, June 1 at The Marquee, 1225 Fourth St., in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Belonging.”
The show starts at 7 p.m. with live music by Adrian Kolbo. There will also be a community art project on display inspired by stories of standing out, fitting in and finding your way.
Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.