Monday, August 31, 2009

My experience: How DOMA allows for legal discrimination at the very point of entry into the USA

Yesterday at JFK International airport, as I re-entered the United States with my legal spouse after traveling abroad for two months, I was to be separated from my spouse while he was taken by officials for questioning about his true identity.

This same scenario occurred a year ago at JFK International airport. My spouse, Mr. Jose Ortiz, a guidance counselor in the public schools of New York City, has been, on more than one occasion, confused with a criminal by the same name.

Last year was the first time that this happened to us upon re-entry into the US. It was somewhat traumatic for me to be potentially separated from my then-11-year life partner (this was just a couple days before our legal civil marriage was to take place). The officer was asking Jose to "follow me" without any explanation and telling me to remain behind. I refused to be separated especially not knowing what was taking place. A superior officer granted me permission to remain with Jose after my explanation that we had "domestic certification" with New York City. It was traumatic at the time: the feeling of law officers separating us without being able to communicate with each other and without being told why we were being separated. I observed, while remaining with Jose in the room where the identity process was conducted, that whole families (spouses and children) entered the room together when only one of the spouses was being questioned. In other (heterosexual) families, the policy is to NOT separate spouses and children during this process – a very wise policy for sure – seeing how potentially traumatic it can be to be separated at this point of entry (for foreigners) and re-entry (for Americans).

This year, when the same thing happened, I was of course less traumatized. But nonetheless, the experience was a bit unnerving (as any legal process can be when law officials are involved and they are leading your spouse away from you without any explanation). When I refused to be separated from Jose "because we are legally married" the officer responded "not here" and laughed (more at the situation, it turns out, than at us or my request). And of course, being in an airport where the jurisdiction is Federal, DOMA does not recognize my legal marriage (which took place in California on August 25, 2008). I ignored his comment "not here" and insisted that since I was married in California and that since NY State recognizes my marriage, I am married. (Hence his laugh, as I look back on it. That is, how interesting that I was passing through a no-man's land where just before entrance I was legally married; as I passed through I was not legally married; and once I was to exit a few paces after our encounter, I would be legally married again.)

The officer who laughed did grant me permission to enter the room with Jose for the processing of his identity and passport. So we were not, in the end, separated; but only because I insisted.

This experience, in which we could have been separated legally from one another on the basis of DOMA, is a stark realization that our marriage is only legally so-so depending on where we are and what the laws are in that given place. I'm wondering now about certain States: what could happen in hospitals where States do not, constitutionally, allow for same-sex marriages.

This weekend I travel with Jose to Colorado for a conference over Labor Day weekend. We will be renting a car. If there is an accident in which Jose is injured, could the hospital in Colorado legally forbid me to be with Jose in the emergency room? After all, I believe Colorado is one of those more-than-30 states which have amended their constitution to read that marriage is only between opposite sexes. Hence, my marriage in California is not recognized in Colorado, I assume.

DOMA needs to be repealed, and of course, Bill Clinton is now on record as regretting he signed DOMA, and President Obama has promised the LGBT community that he will push for our equal rights.

It would be nice next summer to be able to re-enter my country without having to be separated from my spouse as other heterosexual married couples are not when only one spouse needs special processing. That all depends on DOMA's status, no doubt.

And, whoever that other Jose Ortiz is out there - - - well, you've got a name I really like, so if you are in trouble with the law – clean up your act. And as for DOMA, it needs to go away, otherwise it may be my name that's in trouble with the law some day because I don't intend to have government separate me from my spouse without fully understanding what is going on. For now, I'm writing my Congressman about my unhappy experience with DOMA and the unjust and discriminating treatment I received under the law -- that is, DOMA allows for legal discrimination at the very point of entry into the USA. I wonder how the Lady with the lamp feels about that!

Above photo: Beijing International Airport, point of departure before re-entry into the USA.

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