Sacramento binational gay couple’s marriage among first to be federally recognized

Sacramento State professor emeritus Tom Knutson and his husband Phan Datthuyawat have told their “how we met” story hundreds of times, but it took on new importance when they recounted it to a federal immigration official during a 45-minute interview Oct.15.

The two men, who have been together 20 years and got married in Sacramento in 2008, felt a tremendous sense of urgency. Knutson, 70, is battling pancreatic cancer, and Datthuyawat, 49, has not seen his 84-year-old mother in Thailand for more than a decade because he can’t leave the country and return legally without a green card.

Barely 20 minutes into their interview, they got the thumbs-up from veteran U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service official Herman Crawford, becoming one of the nation’s first binational gay couples to have their marriage recognized by federal immigration officials. An estimated 36,000 same-sex couples nationwide are waiting for foreign-born partners such as Datthuyawat to get their green cards as spouses of U.S. citizens, according to a UCLA study. Some have chosen self-imposed exile, leaving for countries that have viewed same-sex unions more favorably.

While gay marriage has been legal in some states for several years – and off and on in California – the federal Defense of Marriage Act barred U.S. immigration officials from recognizing same-sex unions. Last January, Datthuyawat’s petition for a green card as Knutson’s husband was denied. They were among 150 same-sex couples “who had reached the end of their rope” and submitted spouse petitions that were denied because of DOMA, said Laura Lichter, former president of the 13,000-member American Immigration Lawyers Association.

All that changed on June 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA, Lichter said.

“These guys are among the first to the be approved. The USCIS has really worked hard to get its guidelines out there after DOMA, and the first cases to get approved were really those under the gun facing deportation.”

One June 26, Knutson raised the rainbow flag outside the couple’s Campus Commons home, and they celebrated with a Thai feast.

He burst into tears when Datthuyawat got his green card approved. For more than a decade, Knutson said he lived in fear “that at midnight, there’s be a knock on the door and they’d be coming to take Phan away.” Datthuyawat – an eternally calm Buddhist – said he “smiled and put on a happy face,” adding, “this is the one I love; wherever he goes, I will go.”

The fear of deportation is justifiable for immigrant same-sex spouses who don’t have their papers.

Undocumented Luxembourger Pascale Fusshoeller was ordered deported after a traffic stop in Nevada City early this month and is battling to stay in the U.S. with her American-born wife.

It takes three to six months to get an interview with the immigration service after filing an application that includes birth certificates, fingerprints and a background check, Lichter said.

“Before anybody thinks about spending thousands of dollars on application fees and lawyers, make sure there’s nothing in their past that comes back to bite them, such as a criminal record, working in the U.S. under an assumed name or committing fraud to enter the country,” she said. “Just getting married to the true love of your life doesn’t fix your immigration problems.”

The USCIS said it is now processing binational same-sex marriages the same way as opposite-sex unions and does not differentiate by orientation. But length of marriage remains a factor, Lichter said. If a couple has been married for less than two years, the government will subject them to more scrutiny to ensure there’s no marriage fraud. That can work against same sex couples who could not marry legally or were reluctant to come forward and publicize the nature of their unions.

“Striking down DOMA didn’t get rid of discrimination and the social stigma,” said Lichter.

Fusshoeller, who overstayed her 90-day visa waiver by 15 years, could face a struggle even though she and her partner married soon after DOMA was struck down and would have married much sooner if federal law allowed it, Lichter said. Fusshoeller – along with citizens from about 40 other countries in good standing with the United States – was allowed to enter the U.S. for three months without having to file a visa application, “but you’re waiving your right to have your case reviewed by an immigration judge – ‘we’re letting you in easy so we can kick you out easy,’ ” Lichter said.

Fusshoeller, who has won several community-service awards with her wife, Susan Levitz, for their fire coverage on YubaNet.com, said she didn’t marry her American-born spouse until July 22 because she didn’t want to draw federal attention until DOMA was struck down.

“We’re both very private people, and there’s no need to shout anything from the rooftops,” said the Nevada County resident. She faces deportation after trying to use Levitz’s identification during a traffic stop.

Knutson and Datthuyawat have been public ever since they met at the Telephone Pub in Bangkok in 1993. When Knutson, a visiting professor of global communication at Bangkok University who has been to Thailand 50 times, spotted Datthuyawat, “I was so stunned I couldn’t talk to him.” They bumped into each other again at Harry’s Bar and talked until 6a.m.

“I thought he was a nice guy, and he talk and talk and talk – I liked that,” said Datthuyawat, who was a professional flower designer in Bangkok but could not work in the United States without a green card.

Datthuyawat came to Sacramento on a student visa and is now finishing his doctorate in communication at California State University, Sacramento, following in Knutson’s footsteps. Their home is filled with Thai Buddhist music, Asian art and pillows emblazoned with Thai elephants – those with trunks up represent good luck. The one with his trunk down is “reminding us that life is not always good luck,” said Knutson, adding, “if Phan couldn’t return to Thailand, I’d bring Thailand to him.”

Their attorney, Mark Kowalewski, compared the striking down of DOMA to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Now Phan can travel freely, get a Social Security card and is entitled to Social Security benefits, as is any spouse,” he said.

For Knutson, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2012, the demise of DOMA means he will have a loved one to care for him and make end-of-life decisions when the time comes.

“When I’m scared, angry, upset and worried, Phan’s a calming influence,” Knutson said. “The abbot at our Buddhist temple said, ‘Don’t worry about the tiger until the tiger is in the room.’ It’s a relief that we can go back to Bangkok together to see Phan’s family again. We’re all circling the drain, but I can do it with a little more confidence now.”