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A Final Request

A Final Request

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Spend a few minutes on the phone with Roi Whaley and Aurelio Tolentino, and you assume they've been together a long time, if only because they've perfected a hallmark of many married couples: finishing each other's sentences and correcting one another's anecdotes. The back-and-forth is immediately endearing.

The couple met nearly six years ago in an HIV support chat room. Whaley approached Tolentino -- or was it the other way around? Tolentino says it was. A native of the Philippines who was living in the United States on an employer-sponsored visa, Tolentino worked as a registered nurse in a Long Beach, Calif., hospital. He was also trapped in a physically abusive relationship with a man with whom he shared a small, one-bedroom apartment. After their first online meeting, Tolentino would call Whaley from a local park when he needed someone to talk to.

"I knew there was something special about him, and I knew that I had to help him," says Whaley, a 46-year-old casino supervisor who lives in Gulfport, Miss. "It didn't matter if he fell in love with me. I just wanted to let him know that I would always be there for him ... "

"And he gave me the courage to get out of that relationship and never look back," Tolentino, 39, adds without missing a beat. "There was something about his voice that just told me I could trust him."

Binational gay couples in the United States are no strangers to hardship, but the story of Roi and Aurelio is particularly harrowing, recently catching the attention of Immigration Equality. The national LGBT group is pushing for a last-ditch request for the federal government to reunite the couple, who have been forced to live apart for three years because federal law does not permit gays and lesbians the chance to sponsor their noncitizen partners for residency.

Legislative reform for an estimated 36,000 such couples and their families remains uncertain; it's unclear whether Congress will even take up the issue before the current session adjourns at year end. Meanwhile, Immigration Equality continues to lobby for a bill, known as the Uniting American Families Act, to be included in any comprehensive immigration reform legislation or to be passed as a stand-alone measure.

Whaley and Tolentino were inseparable when they eventually moved in together in 2006 -- Tolentino had learned how to drive, packed his belongings into a Honda Civic, and headed east to Mississippi. At one point the couple shared a 30-foot-long FEMA trailer after Hurricane Katrina destroyed Whaley's apartment. Tolentino found a job at a local hospital while Whaley worked construction jobs (the casino where he was a supervisor had also fallen victim to the hurricane). "We were perfectly happy living in the little trailer," Whaley recalls with a laugh. "It was small, but it was home, and we were together. So it didn't matter where we lived."

Since July 11, 2007, phone calls have been their primary means of communication, because Tolentino now lives in Vancouver, Canada, after being ordered to leave the United States. In 2006 his petition for a green card was rejected as a result of his HIV status (the ban on visas for HIV-positive people has since been lifted). A federal judge in New Orleans denied a subsequent asylum request, ruling that Tolentino had failed to show why he would be in danger if he returned to the Philippines.

At first Whaley would try to travel to Canada every two or three months to see Tolentino, who lives with his mother, a legal resident. Then Whaley started getting headaches. His doctors diagnosed him with toxoplasmosis -- a common opportunistic infection associated with AIDS -- but a CT scan last year also found that Whaley had a benign tumor in his brain and a metastasizing tumor in his lung. The cancer was in stage III and had spread to his pancreas and adrenal glands. Whaley's low T-cell count made chemotherapy unviable. Though he has a new oncologist and is good spirits, the prognosis remains grim. "My doctor tells me I've had several miracles so far, but that I shouldn't expect it to continue that way," Whaley says.

And yet his main fears center on Tolentino's well-being. He has also been denied asylum in Canada and faces a possible removal order back to the Philippines. Tolentino's sister, who lives in the Philippines, has been harassed about her brother's HIV status and was told he'd be beaten and castrated, with his "penis fed to a dog" if he returned there. "He's going to die there," Whaley says. "He's not going have a job, he's not going to have access to the medication he needs to live, he's probably going to be shunned by everyone in his family ... "

"And Roi is just not going to be able to make that trip in his condition," Tolentino says. "We're in fear of getting torn apart again, except this time it's going to be across oceans."

Their story echoes details of another that became a cause celebre last year. Shirley Tan, a Pacifica, Calif., housewife and mother also from the Philippines, was arrested by federal immigration agents during an early morning raid of her family's house. Like Tolentino, she had been denied asylum and faced the prospect of returning to her home country (Tan fled to the U.S. in 1989 after a cousin, who was convicted in the murder of Tan's mother and sister, was released from prison following a 10-year sentence).

With the support of Tan's congressional representative, Jackie Speier, California senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a private bill on Tan's behalf, giving her a reprieve from deportation and allowing Tan to stay in the U.S. with her family until next year.

"Roi's case, like Shirley's, really shines a light on the very real consequences of continuing to discriminate against binational couples," says Immigration Equality spokesman Steve Ralls. "If there were ever a case where member of Congress should feel compelled to intervene, this would seem to be it. Aurelio played by rules. He left the country when he was instructed to, he was 110% honest on every piece of paperwork with immigration, and now he and his partner are being punished for that. People who demand that immigrants play by the rules need to be the first in line to say Aurelio should be back in this country."

A governmental remedy for Whaley and Tolentino differs from that of Tan and her wife, Jay Mercado, Ralls explains. The two men are requesting that the Department of Homeland Security grant a "humanitarian parole," in which Tolentino would be temporarily allowed back into the U.S. to care for Whaley. In one recent high-profile example, Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano granted humanitarian parole to Haitian orphans in need of medical care following the country's devastating earthquake in January.

Humanitarian parole requests are more viable when supported by a congressional representative. In June, Massachusetts senator John Kerry successfully lobbied for a Massachusetts gay couple, Tim Coco and Genesio Oliveira, to be reunited for one year after Oliveira's asylum request was denied, forcing him to return to Brazil. "Here were two people who loved each other and were as committed to each other as you could ever imagine, and a quirk in the law was being allowed to keep them apart. I just wanted to do everything I could to reunite them,'' Kerry said in a statement about the couple.

Whaley's House representative, Gene Taylor of Mississippi, has indicated he may be willing to help, as reported Tuesday by the Dallas Voice. In a Tuesday e-mail to Whaley, Kathy Holland, Taylor's constituent liaison, wrote that the congressman's office has reached out to Obama administration officials and that an immigration liaison is currently researching whether "there [is] anything that could be done to help you and Aurelio." Ethan Rabin, Taylor's press secretary, told The Advocate that his office is considering how it may be able to assist Whaley in his request but declined further comment.

Hopeful for a resolution that could bring them together, Whaley is currently visiting Tolentino in Canada, where the couple wed earlier this year. "We kept postponing this marriage," Whaley says. "But life is short. So we finally decided to go for it. To live in the moment."
Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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