The overhead lights are flickering on in the economy cabin of our Lufthansa flight. It is my signal to start to untwist myself in my aisle seat. The best of all husbands still snuggles on my right against the window, not quite ready to face reality. Our 11-hour flight from Germany is almost over. We had a nice time visiting my sister, her kids, extended family and old friends. This time we even fit in some sight seeing at the end of the Christmas holidays. The weather was as expected and after two weeks in a freezing gray central European winter, I’m ready to be back in the California sunshine and our own home.
The flight attendants are coming down the aisle with forms. Immigration’s “visa waiver” forms for German nationals, U.S. Customs and Border Protection forms for everyone. The best husband and I have now lived together for more than seven years and have been married for more than four of those years. This is post wedding, post Proposition 8, post California Supreme Court affirming that we are married, and pre US Supreme Court ruling against DOMA. In these years, Jeff and I have complete many of these forms. So far we always ignored the instructions right at the top of the form: “Only ONE form per family is required.” Usually, we complete separate forms and pretend that we are not a family.
For some reason, I want to do this differently this time. After a couple of looks and a few words, we decide to follow the instructions for the first time. After all we are married in California and Los Angeles, our port of entry, is in California. That’s my shaky reasoning after 10 hours in a crammed airline cabin and a very meager offering of worse airline food.
If you now think: “What’s the big deal,” you were probably born in the United States. Let me explain how someone who is not a citizen sees the immigration officer. If you are a visitor to, or a non-resident alien in, our beautiful country, like I was for many years, the immigration officer at your port of entry has the final say over whether you are allowed to enter. No matter what papers you have, what visas have been issued to you by US consuls, the final decision is up to the immigration officer. You get no guarantees, no promises are made when you work your way through endless forms and background checks. In the end, it depends on the word of the officer and her word is final. If she says no, you are on the next flight back to where your passport says you are from. Over the years, this knowledge seeps into your unconscious and it does not readily leave you when you swear the Oath of Allegiance and finally hold the passport with the blue cover. Entering the country is a privilege and it is serious business.
That’s where my head is when we are in line to have our passport and customs forms checked. When it is our turn, the best husband and I are stepping forward together, passports and ONE customs form in hand, just like all the couples and families ahead of us. The officer looks up at us and asks in a not too friendly tone: “What is your relationship to each other?” He seems to have decided that we are not likely to be father and son. I’m somewhat relieved that that is obvious. “We are married,” I state bravely, but to my ear my voice sounds more timid and less assertive than I like. His responds is just two words: “Two forms!” As I start in on my response pointing at the instructions on the form, he cuts me off in mid sentence: “Two forms!” and in case I didn’t get the message holds up two fingers for emphasis. At that point my survival instinct kicks in, the best husband and I step out of line, we complete two forms and get back in line. We are admitted without further delays, but I am shaken up.
When the federal government does not recognize your family, it is a big deal even if you are in a state where the highest court has ruled that your marriage is indeed as valid as any other. Customs and immigration is just one example of how the federal government touches our daily lives. That’s why the next time we are coming back home, I do hope the best husband and I will only hear the customary “Welcome home” from the immigration officer. I’m looking forward to these two words that always makes me extra glad that I live here.
This article was first published at Frontiers LA.