Playing the waiting game — again

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 taffet@dallasvoice.com

FORCED SEPARATION  |  Cannon Flowers, left, is back home in Dallas, waiting for the U.S. Embassy in Singapore to once again clear his partner RafiQ Salleh, right, to return to the U.S. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)
FORCED SEPARATION | Cannon Flowers, left, is back home in Dallas, waiting for the U.S. Embassy in Singapore to once again clear his partner RafiQ Salleh, right, to return to the U.S. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Congressman’s office reaches out to gay couple separated by immigration law

Aurelio Tolentino, left, and his partner, Roi Whaley

On Friday, we posted this blog about Roi Whaley and his partner, Aurelio Tolentino. Just to catch you up Tolentino, a registered nurse from the Philipines, had come to the U.S. on a work visa and met Whaley in a support group for people with HIV. When he applied for his green card, the federal government learned Tolentino had HIV and, under a policy that has since been revoked by President Barack Obama, officials told Aurelio he would have to leave the country.

Tolentino applied for asylum, since he had already faced violence in his home country because of his sexual orientation and would probably face more if he went back. But that was denied. So he went to Canada to stay with his mother and applied for asylum there. That, too, was denied and he now faces the prospect of having to return to the Philipines. And at the same time, Whaley has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is visiting Tolentino in Canada this month, but unless something changes, it will likely be the last time the two partners are able to see each other.

Whaley, with the assistance of Immigration Equality, had asked his congressman, Democrat Gene Taylor of Bay St. Louis, Miss., for help in getting a humanitarian parole that would allow T0lentino back into the U.S. to be with Whaley in his final months. But Taylor’s office had refused.

That seems to have changed now. Steve Ralls with Immigration Equality called me this morning to let me know that after we posted the earlier blog about the couple’s plight, Taylor’s office has reached out to Whaley to try and help.

“We heard from Taylor’s office today (Tuesday, Sept. 7). He has reached out to Roi and said they want to work with him to see how they can best help him,” Ralls said. “We hope that [Taylor] will work with Roi’s attorney here at Immigration Equality on finding a way for Aurelio to be here in this country with Roi. It is a very positive step forward.”

Of course, if Whaley and Tolentino had been able to be legally married, or even if the U.S. had dropped its antiquated rule on allowing HIV-positive immigrants and visitors into the country earlier, this wouldn’t be such a problem. But for now, let’s just hope that Taylor and Immigration Equality can find a way for these two people who love each other to be together when they need each other most.

—  admin

Gay couple separated by immigration law as one fights cancer; congressman won’t help

Aurelio Tolentino, left, and his partner, Roi Whaley

Roi Whaley and Aurelio Tolentino, both HIV-positive, met in 2004 through a support group for people living with AIDS. Roi is a native of Gulfport, Miss., and Tolentino, a registered nurse, had come to the U.S. on a work visa from his home in the Philipines.

Then, during the process of applying for his green card, authorities discovered Tolentino’s HIV-positive status, and immigration officials informed him he would have to leave the country. That was back in 2006, before President Barack Obama rescinded the policy prohibiting HIV-positive people from entering the U.S., either as immigrants or tourists.

Tolentino wasn’t too keen on going back to the Philipines. For one thing, it would mean leaving his partner, Whaley. On top of that, he had already been attacked and beaten for being gay in his home country, and if he were to return, it would likely happen again.

So Tolentino applied for asylum in the U.S. That application was denied because he had been in this country already for more than a year, and U.S. policy says anyone seeking asylum must apply within one year of entering the country.

Left with no other option, Tolention moved to Canada to live with his mother, who already has legal status as a permanent resident. He applied for asylum there and, once again, was denied. Now he may have no other choice than to return to the Philipines where he would possibly face harassment, violence and even death.

To make matters, Whaley was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. He left for Seattle on Friday, Sept. 3, for a visit to his oncologist, after which he planned to fly on to Canada to spend the month of September with Tolentino and his mother. It will likely be the last time the partners see each other, since Tolentino faces deportation to the Phillipines, and Whaley’s deteriorating health rules out the possibility of him visiting Tolentino there.

There is one hope: a plea to the Department of Homeland Security to grant Tolentino a humanitarian parole that would allow him to return to the U.S temporarily to be with his dying partner. But that’s not likely to happen, either, especially without intervention from Whaley’s congressman, Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat from Bay St. Louis, Miss.

With the help of Immigration Equality, based in Washington, D.C., Whaley and Tolentino have already asked once for Taylor’s help. An aide in Taylor’s office told Whaley no, the congressman wasn’t going to intervene. And Taylor’s office has failed so far to even return calls from Immigration Equality.

But Steve Ralls, director of communications for Immigration Equality, said Friday that neither the couple nor Immigration Equality is ready to give up yet. They are asking for the public’s help in lobbying Congressman Taylor to intervene and get Homeland Security to grant the humanitarian parole that will let Whaley spend his final days with the man he loves.

“Were Roi and Aurelio a married heterosexual couple, Roi would be eligible to apply to sponsor Aurelio for residency in the United States. Because they are a gay couple, however, that option is not open to them,” Ralls said in a press release sent out Friday. “Now, with Roi’s health deteriorating and Aurelio facing a move to the Philipines — where it would be nearly impossible for Roi to travel and be with him — the couple face impending separation. They are one of 36,000 such couples, according to an analysis of the 2000 Census data, facing this kind of situation.

“Despite having followed every immigration rule and voluntarily leaving the U.S. when immigration asked him to do so, Aurelio is now being punished under the law for following the law,” Ralls said.

If you want to help Immigration Equality fight for Roi and Aurelio, or if you are yourself part of an international same-sex couple trying to negotiate immigration law, contact the organization at 202-347-7007.

If you want to contact Congressman Taylor and encourage him to intervene on behalf of this couple, go to his website here to find addresses and phone numbers for his office in Washington, D.C., and all five of his offices in his district.

—  admin