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Bi-national couple nearly torn apart on Valentine’s Day

by Matthew E. Pilecki
Contributor
Friday Feb 18, 2011
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While most couples celebrated Valentine’s Day over toasts of champagne, a gay couple in Philadelphia faced a legal decision that could have torn them apart forever.

Anton Tanumihardja and Brian Andersen met last summer and quickly fell in love; but Tanumihardja, a native of Indonesia, was in the midst of a decade-long legal battle to secure his asylum in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security scheduled his deportation for Feb. 14 after courts denied his request.

Just hours before his flight was due to depart; Lavi Soloway, an attorney at New York-based firm Masliah and Soloway PC and founder of its pro bono Stop the Deportations project, called Tanumihardja with good news. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had issued an indefinite stay on his deportation.

"I cannot express how happy I feel," he told EDGE.

Anderson rejoiced.

"It’s so cliché but it’s almost as if this huge burden was just lifted off our shoulders," he said. "It was like we could take a little bit of a breath. It’s not a permanent victory but it’s an immediate victory."

Tanumihardja came to the United States in 2002 on a tourist visa. He applied for asylum the following year out of the fear he would face persecution if he returned to Indonesia. Chinese, Christian and gay, Tanumihardja knew from experience he would not be safe in his predominately Muslim homeland. Muslim extremists had attacked several of his close gay friends, and a bomb destroyed his church shortly after a service took place.

Citing a lack of evidence, an immigration judge dismissed Tanumihardja’s case. His attorneys filed appeals with the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, but both upheld the initial ruling. His deportation was scheduled for late 2010.

During that time, Tanumihardja began chatting with Andersen online. After a month of texting and late night phone conversations, they finally met. The two bonded quickly. Andersen was coping with his grandmother’s losing battle with breast cancer, and Tanumihardja was fighting his own ailments.

"I always felt like my grandmother sent him here or made me meet him at this time in my life-to be with somebody that could take care of me when she couldn’t," said Anderson before ICE stayed Tanumihardja’s deportation. "When somebody is integrated as a part of your life-you find someone that you love and you want to be with-you don’t want to let them go. I finally found somebody that I want to share my life with and I have no control over whether I actually get to stay with that person."

With his deportation date rapidly approaching, Tanumihardja filed a motion to reopen the case with the Board of Immigration Appeals. His attorneys argued conditions had deteriorated for gay men in Indonesia since Tanumihardja filed his original claim in 2002. The Department of Homeland Security issued a 90-day extension to allow time to review the motion.

As weeks passed, the couple became nervous the Board of Immigration Appeals would not review the case in time to prevent Tanumihardja’s deportation. Alongside Soloway, who joined the case earlier this month, the couple reached out to U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, Jr., (D-Pa.) and Congressman Robert Brady (D-Pa.).

"I was actually a little bit surprised at first because both Sen. Casey and Congressman Brady’s office seemed a little reluctant at first," said Andersen. "I don’t necessarily think that they were reluctant in wanting to support us-I think part of it was a lack of understanding of the actual issue on our end. We were not effectively expressing what we wanted from them initially. Obviously they cannot interfere with the legal matter, and that’s not what we wanted. What we were hoping for was exactly what happened-that Anton’s date got delayed."

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation joined the fight by posting his story online and asking supporters to write letters to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urging her to indefinitely postpone Tanumihardja’s deportation. Valentine’s Day arrived, and the couple prepared for the worst.

"There’s nothing I can do but say goodbye," Tanumihardja told EDGE as he prepared to fly back to Indonesia. "I just have to leave everything behind and I don’t know whether I’ll ever see Brian again. Nobody can stop them-I have to leave this country on Valentine’s Day. I’m just so sorry for Brian and everybody who has gotten to know me."

Andersen lamented his partner’s pending deportation.

"It almost feels like it’s a cruel joke that the government tried to put on," he said. "As if it isn’t enough of a slap in the face that we don’t have the same rights as other couples-every other couple is celebrating this day together, going out and celebrating their relationship, and we’re just fighting for the opportunity to be together."

As the deadline approached, Soloway feared for Tanumihardja’s life as he worked feverishly to delay his deportation. "I don’t think he’d have much chance of surviving in Indonesia if there are people going after gay people," said Soloway. "Anton has lived in Philadelphia for the last nine years, and particularly in the last year since he’s been with Brian, he’s been living as an openly gay man. He’s adjusted to a free, open, and comfortable lifestyle as a gay man in Philadelphia that he could never have in Indonesia. I do not believe he has the capacity to survive in a country where survival for gay men requires closeting yourself."

Two hours before Tanumihardja was scheduled to depart, Soloway received a fax from Homeland Security’s Philadelphia office that said the deportation had been delayed.

With the stay, the couple plans to live together within the next month. And they hope to one day get married. Even if the couple chooses to live in a state that recognizes nuptials of same-sex couples, the Defense of Marriage Act prevents the federal government from recognizing these marriages for the sake of immigration.

"There are now tens of thousands of gay couples who are married, but they all suffer from marriage inequality," said Soloway. "In the name of the Defense of Marriage Act, gay and lesbians couples literally find their marriages being destroyed. Families are being torn apart-a lot of bi-national couples have children. It’s the fabric of American society that’s being torn when you deport somebody. It’s not some other person, some stranger, some alien that the law would refer to that person. This person has become part of us."

Immigration Equality estimates more than 36,000 same-sex couples in the United States include at least one partner who was born outside the country.

The couple’s battle isn’t over. The Board of Immigration Appeals will decide in the coming months whether Tanumihardja can remain in the United States. Until then, Soloway will work to ensure all bi-national LGBT couples enjoy the same rights as their straight counterparts.

"Unfortunately, there is another chapter here," he said. "We do have to make sure Anton does not get deported at a later date. We want to keep working on raising the profile of the plight by bi-national couples with folks in Washington so we can try to get better policies and better law."

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