For the second time, RafiQ Salleh sits in Singapore waiting for a visa renewal as his business, his spouse in Dallas suffer from the separation
DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
RafiQ Salleh has lived in the United States legally since moving here in 1998 with his partner Cannon Flowers. But now, for the second time in two years, Salleh has been prevented from returning to the U.S. after returning to his native Singapore to pick up his visa.
In 2008, Salleh opened Chill Bubble Tea across the Tollway from the Galleria in North Dallas. He was approved for an E2 entrepreneurial visa, had to return to his home country to pick it up.
He traveled to Singapore but was stopped before returning because his name appeared on the terrorist watch list.
Flowers, who had accompanied his partner to Singapore, was forced to return to Dallas alone. He said after his return, it only took 20 minutes researching online to discover that the RafiQ Salleh on the terrorist watch list is a Pakistani who was already being held in Guantanamo.
It took the State Department almost two months to figure out the same information.
Flowers met Salleh when he was working for Texas Instruments and was based in Singapore. When Flowers moved back to Dallas, Salleh accompanied him on a student visa. His stay was extended on a practical training visa and then again on an H1B three-year work visa, which he could renew once.
Flowers emphasizes now that Salleh’s residence in this country has always been legal.
To remain in the U.S., Salleh invested in a new business and qualified for an E2 entrepreneurial visa. That document can be renewed an unlimited number of times but expires every two years.
To renew it, Salleh must travel to Singapore for an interview at the consulate where the visa is issued.
The 2008 trip delayed the opening of his business — a costly setback — and it took congressional intervention and pressure before the embassy acknowledged that the Guantanamo prisoner from Pakistan and the gay entrepreneur from Singapore were two different people.
In April of this year, Salleh applied to renew his visa again.
“RafiQ and I traveled to Singapore on Sept. 7,” Flowers said. “RafiQ appeared before the U.S. consulate in Singapore on Sept. 14. An interview was conducted and he was informed that he would hear back from the consulate within four to six weeks but processing could take up to six months.”
And once again, because his shares a name with an incarcerated terrorist suspect, Salleh was not able to return.
“I feel it is even pointless to inquire about my status,” Salleh said, speaking this week from Singapore.
The consulate made it clear to not contact them for at least the first four weeks, Flowers said, because doing so would slow down the process and cause the embassy to view Salleh’s application in a less than favorable light.
“Homeland Security has already approved the visa, stateside,” Flowers said. “However the consulate has the final say and there is no appeal process to their decision.”
He said the problem is the two-track visa approval process between the State Department and Homeland Security. Neither wants to be accused of being the gatekeeper who let terrorists into the country, Flowers said.
“There needs to be one immigration approval process,” he said.
The current system that could keep a businessman out of the country up to six months once every two years makes running a business in this country extremely difficult.
“Physically I assumed I could take care of business from this end,” Salleh said. “But realistically it is affecting me [and] I can honestly say I am so out of touch.”
He said it is difficult to run a business when he’s starting his day just as his employees are ending theirs. He has tried to adjust his schedule to Dallas time.
“It is possible but physically draining,” Salleh said.
Flowers said the waiting period is emotionally difficult. Salleh has been trying to keep busy in Singapore.
“The first two weeks I was focused on taking care of my family matters for my dad,” Salleh said.
His mother died earlier this year and he helped his father change the title on her property in neighboring Malaysia.
“RafiQ has been doing volunteer teaching at the art academy he once attended,” Flowers said. “He is also spending time with his many nieces and nephews.”
But Salleh acknowledged that the long wait is disheartening.
“Slowly as it creeps into the third, fourth, and now fifth week, I felt very discouraged,” he said.
Although family and friends in Singapore surround him, they have no idea “how much it is affecting my emotional well-being,” Salleh said.
Immigration problems are common for binational same-sex couples. About 40,000 such couples live in the United States.
According to the group Immigration Equality, 19 nations allow their citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration benefits. The U.S. is not among them.
Henry Velandia and Josh Vandiver were married in Connecticut in August. That state allows same-sex marriage. However, the marriage is recognized only on a state level and not by the federal government under the Defense of Marriage Act.
A ruling by a Massachusetts judge declared DOMA unconstitutional but that rulling has little effect so far as it is making its way through the appeals process.
Vandiver was born in Venezuela and his residency visa has expired. He will appear before an immigration judge on Nov. 17. The couple hopes deportation will be delayed until after the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of DOMA.
“Asking for a stay is a good strategy,” Flowers said. “I believe they’ll get it.”
“The judge and the government attorney have discretion here,” said Lavi Soloway, Velandia’s attorney.
He said that the couple has not made contingency plans if Velandia is forced to leave the United States.
“For many couples, the only option is finding a third country and becoming refugees,” he said.
Flowers said he and Salleh will be together even if they have to find another place to live.
The Uniting American Families Act would prevent this type of deportation. American citizens would be allowed to sponsor a same-sex partner for residency and citizenship. Heterosexual couples who marry can apply for permanent residency for their spouse. This would give same-sex couples an equal right.
That bill along with the Dream Act, which would give people who came to this country illegally as minors a path to citizenship, are stalled in Congress.
Soloway said his focus right now is on DOMA. If the Supreme Court finds that law unconstitutional, marriages such as his clients’ would be recognized and Vandiver could sponsor his spouse.
Flowers said the treatment of binational couples amounts to nothing more than another form of bullying.
“I believe those that bullied us when we were young have simply grown up and continue to bully us in our grown up lives,” he said.
He said there are many forms of bullying including “don’t ask, don’t tell” and employment discrimination as well as forced separation due to discriminatory immigration laws.
Flowers said he always wakes up at 4 a.m. and that’s when he feels loneliest. It’s 5 p.m. in Singapore, the time when the U.S. embassy closes. If he hasn’t heard anything by then, it will be at least another 24 hours before he hears whether he and his partner of 14 years will be reunited.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010