DUMMERSTON -- Out from under a rain cloud.
That's how Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda felt on Sept. 3 when they learned that Ueda had been granted a green card, allowing her to stay legally in the United States.
"I've said to Tak several times that you're stuck with me forever. Nobody is going to kick you out. You're home forever," said Herbert. "It's a huge relief and it's a weird, wonderful reality."
"I was in a cage," said Ueda. "I couldn't do so many things, but now I can be free from those legal restrictions. I feel like a feather."
Herbert and Ueda were legally married in April 2011, but because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, Ueda had been in danger of being deported back to Japan. In 2012, Vermont's congressional delegation was able to use its influence to get Ueda a temporary reprieve -- deferred action status that was set to expire in 2014 -- by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. And on June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of DOMA, a ruling that guaranteed federal benefits for legally married same-sex couples, which include green cards for foreign-born spouses.
"It's kind of like having a child. We've been pregnant for all of these years and all of sudden, wow, here it is ... this is real," said Herbert.
In 2000, Vermont was the first state in the nation to legalize civil unions. In 2009, Vermont became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage through legislation. Currently, 13 states (including all six New England states), Washington, D.C., several Native American tribes, and several counties in New Mexico recognize same-sex marriage.
Herbert said the support she and Ueda have received over the years has been fantastic and was quite effusive with her gratitude for the local community, their faith group, the governor and the state's congressional delegation.
"We couldn't go anywhere ... someone at the grocery store or the gas station or downtown was always asking us how things were going," she said. "There have been people we don't know at all that have been following our story. It helped keep us up by having people show us how much they care."
At the 2012 Dummerston Town Meeting, voters approved a resolution urging the federal government allow Ueda to stay in the country.
"That was really amazing," said Ueda. "They embraced us. What a great town and state. This never would have happened in Japan, but here it's really inclusive. I love Dummerston. I feel good energy here."
"People care," said Herbert. "And Zeke (Goodband) cared enough to do something. It takes courage to care to the point you go to the Selectboard and you say we've got people in our town struggling who need our support."
"This is great news," said Goodband, who is the chairman of the Dummerston Selectboard. "They deserve the same rights and privileges that the rest of us enjoy. I'm pleased for them and I know they had a long hard time of this. I'm glad it turned out well."
The couple has been represented by Immigration Equality, a New York-based organization that provides free legal counsel to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants and asylum seekers. Herbert and Ueda, who were part of a federal lawsuit filed by the organization, are one of an estimated 36,000 bi-national, same-sex couples in the United States.
"The work still isn't done," said Herbert. "There are 37 states that don't have marriage equality."
Tom Plummer, a staff attorney for Immigration Equality, said Herbert and Ueda are among the first bi-national, same-sex couples to get a green card.
"There are many couples like them that have been forced into exile or who have been separated while we waited for the Supreme Court's decision," said Plummer. "For Francis and Takako, the battle is over. They have been struggling to stay together for more than a decade and now Tak is a lawful permanent resident in the United States. In three years, she is eligible to become a U.S. citizen."
Plummer said because DOMA has been struck down, same-sex couples who are married in states that recognize their marriages but live in one of the 37 states that does not, they are still eligible for federal benefits.
"Love and persistence won out," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. "How do you not support them? The are two pretty special people with a wonderful relationship despite all of the adversity they have faced."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said after many years of living with uncertainty, having serious concerns about their immigration status and options, and facing separation from their loved ones, same-sex spouses and their families will now have access to federal benefits that they have been unjustly denied.
"This is an important step for Frances and Takako and for all Americans," said Sanders.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who championed this cause in Congress as the author of his Uniting American Families Act, said for years federal law has forced people such as Herbert and Ueda to choose between the country they love and being with the one they love.
"I know from years of working with them about the hardship and worry that has been part of their everyday lives," said Leahy. "I share the great happiness they feel today."
Gov. Peter Shumlin also celebrated the news that Ueda had received a green card.
"It ends the uncertainty and discrimination that has hung over their marriage for too long. Now Takako can officially call Vermont home."
Herbert said now that Ueda has received her green card, they now have to learn to live without the rain cloud that has been hanging over their heads for so long.
"We are looking forward to regular marital problems. They'll be easy after this."
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.