Brian Willingham and his husband, Alfonso Garcia, who fought deportation before DOMA was struck down. (Photo/courtesy of Brian Willingham and Alfonso Garcia)

Opinion: No one deserves to be separated from their family

My husband, Alfonso Garcia, has a generous spirit, a warm heart, a beaming smile, and a laugh that can be heard from a mile away. In the 12 years we’ve been together, we’ve never been apart for more than a few days.  I always thought we were inseparable until the federal government proved me wrong.

In June 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took my husband away from me.  Alfonso, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was detained after a routine traffic stop. Because of federal immigration policies that allowed cooperation between local law enforcement and federal deportation officials, undocumented immigrants like Alfonso could be targeted, detained and deported for something as minor as a right on red.

Waking up in an empty bed the next day, my thoughts raced: “Where is my husband?” “Is he in physical danger?” “Have they already sent him to Mexico?” “Will I ever see him in our country again?” I felt so powerless and overwhelmed I collapsed on the floor in tears.

RELATED: Supreme Court ruling opens pathway for binational couples on immigration 

During the first week Alfonso shuttled between three Bay Area jails. First they locked him in a visitation booth and forgot about him during the guard shift change. Then they put him in a group holding cell where he slept on a concrete floor. Eventually they left him in windowless solitary confinement for fear other inmates would assault him for being gay.

I hired an attorney to petition the government to release Alfonso on bond.  They denied my request and sent Alfonso to a detention center in Arizona. We maxed out our credit cards and drained our savings to hire a second attorney—who finally secured Alfonso’s release on bond. Fighting my husband’s deportation nearly bankrupted us, but we still feel lucky. Thousands of families do not have the resources to fight like we did, and are torn apart every day.

In 2012 I petitioned for Alfonso to receive a green card. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website says “For immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, visas are always available.” But what they mean is “straight U.S. citizens.” My petition was denied for one reason: because I am gay. The federal government has singled out our country’s LGBT citizens as both separate and unequal. If we were a straight couple, we could have married, Alfonso could have received his green card, and he could have become a naturalized citizen years ago.  But because we are both men, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevented us from being treated like the married couple we are.

RELATED: Minutes after DOMA struck down, married gay man’s deportation halted 

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional. And the government can no longer threaten to tear apart my family because I can finally apply for a green card on behalf of Alfonso.

While our story has a happy ending, there are millions of other families who have been separated because of our country’s patchwork of failed and mismanaged immigration policies. That’s why I will continue to fight for immigration reform. Visa backlogs keep family members separated from each other, stuck in years of limbo.  (Alonso actually has approved but unprocessed visa petitions from his mother and sister dating back to 2001.)

No one deserves to be separated from their family. No child deserves to be torn apart from his or her mother or father. No spouse deserves to be separated from the person he or she has sworn to love ‘til death do them part. And no one deserves to be thrown out of the country they have made their home.

Brian Willingham and Alfonso Garcia, who have been together for almost 12 years, have also shared their story as part of The DOMA Project.   

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