OUT OF THE SHADOWS AND INTO MARRIAGE
By the time Chris Guillen hit his late twenties, he’d scoped out the dating scene in his hometown of San Jose, California.
Trial and error led him to establish two basic ground rules.
“If you don’t drive or you still live at home with your family, you’re out.”
Juan Morales broke both rules, right off the bat.
“When I met Juan, he was like, ‘I live with my family…’” Chris recalls. “And I was like, oh, gosh darn it. So I said, ‘Okay, so I live over here. Can you come over?’ And he was like, ‘Well, I don’t really drive.’ I was like, ‘Are you serious?”
Juan owned a car. He told Chris he had a horrible sense of direction and driving new places made him nervous.
Chris liked Juan, so he let it slide.
Whenever Chris brought up the driving issue, Juan dodged it.
“I always came up with reasons for not showing him my driver’s license,” Juan recalls. “Like, I lost it, or, it’s at home. I don’t have it with me.”
The two grew closer as they spent more time together. A few months after they started dating, Chris surprised Juan with a pair of plane tickets to Los Angeles for a Disneyland getaway.
Juan kept insisting he didn’t want to go because he was afraid of flying. But Chris kept pushing, until the truth slipped out.
Juan’s only form of ID was a Mexican passport. In Juan’s words, he was illegal. Looking back, he says he hid his immigration status from Chris because it felt like a flaw.
“You want to be unstoppable. You want to be free to go anywhere, do anything,” Juan explains. “So for me, not having (legal status) was a big block (keeping) me from doing things I wanted to do…for me that became a flaw. Probably it’s just in my head. But I always felt that was something keeping me behind others.”
“I’m looking at him as he’s telling me. And I see the fear in his eyes - and a look on his face like I’m going to turn and flee at any moment,” Chris recalls. “I kept a straight, calm face. But in my head I’m like…‘What did I get myself into with this? And how do I deal with this?’ I’m quickly processing this and I’m like, ‘I care about him. This shouldn’t be an issue. There are ways around this. We can deal with this.’”
And they have dealt with it. They've been together since 2009.
Juan is a supervisor for a company that makes custom parts for the aerospace industry. Chris has worked as a medical technician and bus driver and now works for Fed-Ex.
Potted succulents and flowering plants surround the front walkway of Chris and Juan’s home that they rent in a suburb just north of downtown Sacramento.
“For the most part, everything you see that’s green is because of me,” Juan says, with a smile. “I want green inside and I want green outside.”
Inside, a vine curves around the edges of a huge picture window and stretches along the archway leading to the kitchen. There, Juan’s collection of ceramic, wood and glass hen and rooster figurines dot the shelves and counters.
The couple have three dogs, Moo-Moo, Nala and Spot, plus Peanut and Oreo, their cats. Chris slides open the screen door to the backyard to introduce the rest of the family.
A brood of glossy hens range around the narrow, packed-dirt yard behind the house. Juan points out Gladys, Honey and Clarabel. One hen has fluffy bangs - Chris calls her the Muppet. He jokes about the time they drove forty miles to Yuba City to buy a cuddly chick Juan saw on craigslist.
Juan glances around, taking in the plants, pets and chickens. “I brought a little piece of my childhood here,” he says, fondly.
Juan was born in Durango, Mexico. When he was seven years old, his parents left their hometown to settle near their nine older children who had immigrated to San Jose, California.
Juan stayed behind in the care of an older sister who was married and settled in their hometown. “She was like a second mother, very loving,” Juan recalls. Juan says his parents told him they’d send for him when they were established.
The Morales homestead sits on land at the edge of Durango. It was a semi-rural area in the 1980s, when Juan was little, with wide open spaces between the houses. Juan and his friends explored the nearby riverbank and played marbles in the dirt.
From a young age, it was Juan’s job to look after the family’s hens. The role was a perfect fit.
When Juan was ten years old, his parents sent word for him to join them in San Jose. He took a long bus ride with his brother-in-law from Durango to the Tijuana border crossing. From there, Juan says a family offered him a ride across the border in the backseat of their car, alongside their own children.
“I crossed (in) a car, like regular people. I didn’t have to cross the desert or a river,” he explains. On the other side, he reunited with his parents, siblings and a close-knit circle of cousins eager to show him his new home.
SON OF A BRACERO
Antonio Morales, Juan’s father, was born in Mexico in 1929. He came to California legally as an agricultural worker through the U.S. Bracero program in 1956. Afterwards, Mr. Morales returned to work the family ranch in Durango, where Juan was born.
In 1986, under the Reagan administration, Congress passed a legalization program for certain Mexican immigrants in the U.S. A few of Juan’s eldest siblings were eligible for legalization as they were already working in the U.S. at that time. Juan’s father decided to return to California, bringing Juan’s mother.
They planned to retire in the U.S. and gain legal status through their older children. They decided Juan, being so much younger than his siblings, should stay in Mexico until the Morales family was established in northern California.
No one in his family anticipated that it would take nearly twenty-five years to bring Juan out of the shadows.
WARY IN SAN JOSE
Juan describes the Morales clan as loving and close.
“The house (in San Jose) was always full,” Juan recalls. “Like whenever it was someone’s birthday, there was always a lot of people. There was always a lot of music, dancing. On birthday parties they would have a lot of cake, a piñata with bags of candy. We always had a good time.”
Juan’s parents assured him a path to legalization would open for him sooner rather than later. After all, eight of Juan’s siblings had either gained legal status or were on a path to a green card.
But Juan was afraid of what might happen to him in the meantime. Cautionary tales rippled through his mostly Hispanic neighborhood. Immigration raids felt like a constant threat.
“I’d see it on TV, I’d read it in newspapers, I’d hear it from family members,” Juan recalls. “It was always going around. Every day there was something on the news about laws changing and how a lot of people got deported in this city over here. They came to their work and started gathering all the people and putting them on the bus - taking them somewhere - and later you find out they’re taking them back to Mexico for being illegals. Some of us had papers and others - like me - didn’t. So (immigration status) was something our family always had in mind.”
Of all the Morales siblings, Juan was the only one who had attended elementary, middle and high school in the U.S. “I had a different mindset,” he explains.
Juan’s next oldest brother attended a year or two of high school before launching into full-time work. “He barely learned a little English…and that was it.”
Juan’s elder siblings had jumped straight into work after coming to California. It was simply a matter of survival.
Juan’s expectations were more like those of his American-born high school friends. He wanted to drive his own car around town. But whenever Juan took the wheel, he felt anxious. At the time, California didn’t issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Juan imagined the worst-case scenario - a traffic stop that could result in deportation back to Mexico.
Juan’s illegal immigration status made him cautious and worried, but it didn't limit him until his senior year of high school. As he and his classmates visited college campuses, Juan started making plans to pursue his education and become a teacher.
“You see all your friends going and you want to do the same thing,” explains Juan. “You don’t want to go back to your high school reunion in ten years and (be) talking about what you have done and (find out) they’ve graduated from this college - now they have this job. And what are you going to say?”
But as Juan was filling out the college student loan form he came to a box asking candidates if they were U.S.-born and he got spooked. He feared his immigration status prevented him from applying to college.
Juan didn’t know who to ask. Most of Juan’s siblings had only finished high school in Mexico - they had no experience to offer about college in the U.S.
“Since I was the first one, I had nobody to show me the ropes,” Juan recalls. “If I got stuck, I got stuck. There was nobody there to help me pass that.” He didn't even complete the application.
After high school graduation, Juan started working at Kmart.
GAY, MEXICAN AND CATHOLIC
Juan was different from his siblings in another way - one that had nothing to do with assimilation, educational goals or immigration status.
Juan was a gay teen growing up in a first-generation, Mexican Catholic family where boys were expected to marry girls.
Juan’s parents sensed he was different, but “nobody talks about this,” he explains. “They didn’t have any experience with anybody like that. They weren’t really educated about it. So, if they haven’t lived it…they don’t know what it is. Or how to fix it. Or what to do about it.”
But beyond sending him to a counselor - Juan says his parents never put overt pressure on him to “change his mind.” And while no one in the family acknowledged his gay identity, Juan insists he still felt supported.
“The way they showed their protection was (by) letting me be the way I was without questioning it, without telling me it’s wrong or that I’m going to go to hell. They just saw me like another family member. Like a normal male, no different from their other brothers or kids.”
THE WAITING LIST
Juan lived in California for nine years before a path appeared allowing him to "get in line" for adjustment of immigration status (a green card).
In 2000, Juan got his first break on the immigration front. One of his older sisters (by then a U.S. citizen) submitted a visa petition on his behalf.
In the spring of 2001, Juan got word from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that his visa petition had been approved. Although he was elated, he prepared himself to be patient. He knew it could take a while for a sibling visa to come through.
Several months later, Juan called the visa processing hotline to check his status. As he listened, an automated voice reported that they were currently processing visas from 1990 - 1991.
Juan’s visa was one of hundreds of thousands stuck in a more than ten-year backlog of immigrant visas for Mexican siblings of U.S. citizens.
“It was just making me feel like it was never going to happen. I felt like I was going to wait another ten or more years,” Juan explains. “Because you know, you live day-by-day, and when you hear that they’re still doing visas from ’93, ’94, and your petition is in 2001…and then you call the next year and they’re still almost in the same years - you feel hopeless.”
Mary Waltermire is Juan’s current immigration attorney and she’s done the math. Waltermire says it could be another decade before Juan’s 2001 visa opens up, unless there’s a change in immigration law.
GET YOUR PAPERS
When Juan and Chris met in 2009, Juan had already been living in the shadows for eighteen years.
At first, when Juan told him he didn’t have his “papers” Chris was puzzled. “So I’m like, ‘Okay, well, get your papers. What’s the issue?’”
That’s when Chris learned Juan’s visa had been in the queue for eight years and counting.
Chris’ own grandmother was born in Mexico. And he recalls that she adjusted her immigration status through marriage to his grandfather. But Chris admits he was “clueless” about current U.S. immigration law with regard to immigrants from Mexico.
Chris describes himself as a constant worrier but also a problem solver. So, he says he felt stumped and angry when he realized that waiting in what seemed like an endless line was Juan’s only viable option for attaining legal status in the U.S.
WAITING OUT PROP 8
Juan’s lack of legal status did not deter the couples’ relationship. In 2012, Chris and Juan celebrated their commitment by planning a big ceremony with friends and tolerant family members.
At the time, there was no legal marriage option for same sex couples in California. In 2008, voters had passed Proposition 8, a ballot initiative banning gay marriage.
But in the months following the couples’ commitment ceremony, legal challenges to Proposition 8 were ping-ponging through the courts. Gay marriage was legal in a handful of states - but that did no good for Juan and Chris. A state marriage license meant nothing in terms of federal immigration law.
On June 23, 2013, back when Chris was working a shift as a medical technician, he remembers overhearing co-workers asking each other excitedly, “Did you hear? Did you hear?”
That was the day the gay community had been eagerly expecting news from the Supreme Court.
“I had just finished rooming a patient and ran back to my desk to see if the thing had come in yet,” Chris recalls. “I kept checking my phone and a couple of friends said, ‘Did you hear? They did it - they did it!’ and they were kind-of crying. I got very teary…and you just kept hearing the whispers going throughout the clinic.”
In a 5-4 decision in the United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down sections of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) it found unconstitutional.
The landmark case led to new rights for same-sex couples including those with mixed immigration status. The High Court’s ruling on DOMA opened federal benefits to same-sex couples for the first time in U.S. history.
The same day, the Supreme Court’s decision not to rule in the Proposition 8 case effectively led to the legalization of gay marriage in California. For Juan, this pair of decisions opened a clear path to citizenship.
A week later, Juan and Chris joined hundreds of thousands of people in San Francisco for the annual gay pride parade, this time celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Afterwards, the couple passed by San Francisco’s City Hall. “I think there was a sign that said ‘Wedding Ceremonies’ and it was pointing an arrow,” recalls Juan. “And then Chris said, ‘Oh, we should go inside and get married!’”
And so, on the spur of the moment, the couple tied the knot. Legally this time.
“There was a big line going,” Juan explains. “And then every time people got married they would come down the stairs and walk through and everybody was cheering for them. And they would give them a flower.” “Oh my gosh, there was a huge line of people,” adds Chris. “You could feel the excitement and happiness and elation in the air. A lot of tears.”
“And we went in, they started checking everything. I started getting nervous because he only had his Mexico ID,” recalls Chris. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what if they tell us ‘No, he has to have legal ID’? And no, (instead) they started stamping everything. They said, ‘Ok, here you guys go.” And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, here we go. We’re going to do this. We’re going to get it done.’”
Chris scrolls through his Facebook timeline to his post that day: “We did it! Me and my coo-coo bear are finally now legally married in the state of California. ‘Expletive’ all you Prop 8 supporters. Here’s to eternal happiness and equality to all human beings.’”
THE TEN-YEAR BAR
Through his marriage to Chris, Juan was finally eligible to adjust to permanent resident status.
Within weeks, Chris and Juan were sitting down with an immigration attorney.
Marriage to a U.S. citizen forgives certain missteps in the eyes of the immigration system. But it does not forgive “entry without inspection.” That’s immigration-speak for an illegal border crossing, like Juan’s entry from Mexico back in 1992.
Most immigrants who enter “without inspection” must return to their home country in order to apply for a green card at the U.S. consulate there. If you are an immigrant from Mexico, your departure from the U.S. triggers a ten-year bar to reentry. Tens of thousands of couples with mixed immigration status, gay or straight, face this dilemma.
So, despite his marriage to a U.S. citizen, Juan had to face that consequence in order to apply for a green card from Mexico. Chris felt a sense of panic rising as he heard the attorney say these words.
But then, as the attorney examined Juan’s immigration dossier, she discovered a key detail: the visa petition submitted by his sister back in 2000. Due to changes in immigration law in 2001, the existence of that earlier petition protected Juan from having to leave the U.S.
The attorney gave the couple a thumbs up for the next steps.
A few months later, a USCIS immigration officer interviewed Chris and Juan to determine if their marriage was sincere.
“That day I was supposed to be the nervous one,” Juan recalls. “But the interviewer said the nervous person was Mr. Chris over here!”
Chris admits, “The lady felt so sorry for us, because of my anxiety, to put me out of my misery, she told us, ‘You know what? It’s done. He’s fine.’ She stamped the green stamp and he was approved.” Chris finally let the good news sink in.
Juan remembers walking “out of the building, into the streets, and automatically I felt like a different person.”
In the spring of 2016, a few weeks shy of Juan and Chris’ seventh anniversary as a couple, they got a call from immigration attorney Mary Waltermire. After a two-year verification period, Juan’s temporary green card would be replaced by a permanent one.
In the fall, Juan will be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. Juan is celebrating his thirty-fifth birthday this year. He was ten years old when he crossed the border from Mexico.
Juan never expected to wait this long, but he says he believes it was meant to be this way.
Nonetheless, Juan would like to see changes to immigration policy that would assist child arrivals from Mexico, like himself.
“The government should look after and help students that are trying to succeed in education, by letting them have some kind of visa status,” explains Juan. “So they can fulfill their dream. If their dream is to become a lawyer, a doctor, the government should allow it because…they’re getting something good. They’re going to be the future of this nation and that’s something that benefits this country.”
And both Juan and Chris say they’d like to see U.S. immigration policy do more to reunify immigrant families separated by the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of long waiting lists for visas.
Seven years of navigating the immigration system on Juan’s behalf left Chris keenly frustrated. “It puts into perspective why many other Mexican immigrants consider themselves illegal and don’t even bother trying because of the hassle, the red tape, the costs and everything,” says Chris. “You can be sent right back to Mexico for ten years and split from your family - who wants to go through that?” he asks.
Family is exactly what Juan and Chris are setting their sights on now that they’ve cleared the immigration hurdle. They’re applying to become foster parents. The process requires a lot of paperwork: background checks, references, financial statements, training seminars.
After their time in the immigration maze, Chris is confident he and Juan can both handle it.
Now that Juan has his green card in hand, he and Chris feel safe knowing they’ll navigate the unknown waters of parenting, together.
This story was updated on June 22, 2016 to correct information about Juan Morales' Sibling Visa application.