POLITICS

LGBTQ Immigrants On Same-Sex Marriage: 'History Went Along With Us'

04/27/2015 08:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015
Courtesy of Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez

WASHINGTON -- Same-sex marriage arguments before the Supreme Court on Tuesday stem partly from a dispute over a few words on a piece of paper.

Jim Obergefell, one of the lead plaintiffs, wanted to be listed as the surviving spouse on the death certificate of his late husband, John Arthur. Because they live in Ohio, where their marriage is not recognized, the question of whether Obergefell should be allowed to do so has made it to the Supreme Court.

Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez, 25, understands Obergefell's desire to ensure his spouse's death certificate reflects the existence of their marriage. Isabel, who identifies as genderqueer and who prefers the use of "Isabel" rather than a male or female pronoun, is married to Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, 29, an activist who will speak at a rally outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

In 2013, Isabel and Felipe -- who both were once undocumented -- had been married for about a year when Isabel applied for citizenship. At the citizenship interview, Isabel filled out the forms as a married person. The agent apologized, but said he had to change the form back to single, because Isabel's same-sex marriage wasn't recognized by the federal government.

The next day, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that kept the federal government from recognizing marriages like the Sousa-Rodriguez's.

Isabel went to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen later, and received a naturalization certificate. It said "married" -- Isabel said the agent must have gone back to change it in light of the Supreme Court decision. It was an emotional day for a lot of reasons, but Isabel said just seeing that word was the biggest one.

Reading about Jim Obergefell and John Arthur reminded Isabel of how that felt.

"It just struck a chord for me because I remember that feeling at the courthouse and just how desperately I didn't want it to say I was single because it was a lie and I didn't want to be living a lie," Isabel said. "Having that recognition, I know how badly Jim wanted and continues to want that to be the case in his fight at the Supreme Court, so I feel so connected to him in that sense."

Isabel and Felipe are among the estimated 900,000 LGBT immigrants living in the U.S., including about 267,000 who are undocumented, according to a 2013 report from the Williams Institute at UCLA Law.

Isabel and Felipe met in Miami in 2007, when they started immigration activism with the group Students Working For Equal Rights. Felipe was born in Brazil and had been living in the U.S. without status since he was 14. Isabel was originally from Colombia and was undocumented until being granted a green card through Isabel's stepmother.

Isabel and Felipe were friends at first, but their "activist love," as Felipe called it, grew quickly. A few months after they started dating in 2008, they moved in together. Felipe came out twice -- first as an undocumented immigrant, then as a gay man.

They were active in immigrant rights issues, and walked with two other activists from Miami to Washington in 2010.

In 2011, when Isabel proposed, it came after a walk around Charleston, South Carolina, that ended on the steps of a Department of Homeland Security building, and a discussion about the injustices that had transpired there.

"The only thing that we really promised each other was always to fight for justice and do it together," Felipe said. "That was really our number one promise to each other when we first started dating."

They were married in Florida on May 18, 2012, but it wasn't recognized by the state, so they traveled to Massachusetts the next day, waited the state-required number of days, and were legally married. Felipe said they were unsure what it would mean for his immigration status, but they didn't think it would be a factor.

But it eventually did matter. He received work authorization and temporary reprieve through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, in 2012, but was still undocumented. When DOMA was struck down, Isabel was finally able to petition for legal permanent residency for Felipe. He got his green card in December.

"We didn't [get married], thinking about how there is this potential benefit of not having to face deportation if I had a permanent status," Felipe said. "It was not in the plans, it just happened like that. History went along with us."

They now live in New York, where Isabel is set to begin a PhD program in sociology at CUNY in the fall and Felipe works with the immigrant advocacy group United We Dream. Eventually, they hope to move back to Florida and adopt children. They also want to keep advocating for better treatment of immigrants and LGBTQ people.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, Felipe said it will be bittersweet, since other courts have held up President Barack Obama's deportation executive actions that would help many undocumented immigrants.

"What I hope is that allies of LGBTQ people and also LGBTQ people in general can see that immigrants are still struggling," he said. "Through the same pathway that we found rights, they also have taken away rights from folks. This is a moment for the coalition to be coalescing."

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