WEST DUMMERSTON -- Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda appear to be a happy couple enjoying their life together in West Dummerston.
And in many ways they are -- they like spending time in nature and are deeply devoted to their friends and multiple four-legged companions -- but they have also been undergoing a stressful, decade-long struggle to maintain Ueda’s legal status in the United States.
Because their marriage is not recognized by the federal government, Herbert cannot sponsor Ueda for a green card, and on July 5 Ueda’s student visa expired.
Navigating the loopholes in the immigration laws so they can stay together has taken precedence in their lives ever since Takako moved from her home country of Japan to live with Frances in 2000. They said it’s affected their relationship and become a constant source of anxiety.
To obtain a student visa, Ueda enrolled in classes at Keene State College soon after arriving in the United States despite the culture shock and her limited grasp of English. Last year she earned her third degree in 10 years.
With the expiration of her visa looming, Ueda said she exhausted every possible avenue, looking for a way to remain with her partner.
"I was ready to go back to Japan, because all my hopes were gone," she said.
Then Herbert stumbled on a new possibility, and their hopes for a future together in the community they’ve come to love were renewed.
"I kept getting action alerts from Immigration Equality, and I thought maybe there’s a chance that Takako could apply for a spousal visa," said Herbert. "I contacted a lawyer at Immigration Equality, and she said, ‘I think we should talk.’"
Immigration Equality, based in New York City, is a national organization that focuses on issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive immigrants, advocating for immigration equality for all without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.
The organization latched onto their story, Herbert said, and soon the couple became the face of an issue that impacts 36,000 couples nationwide. They even appeared on a special report of CNN Newsroom that aired June 28.
"We feel we’ve been given an opportunity," said Herbert. "We took the risk to expose ourselves so that maybe other bi-national couples will somehow be helped."
Immigration Equality has been working with the women on preparing a spousal petition for Herbert to sponsor Ueda for a spousal green card based on their marriage recognized in Vermont.
"In most cases it would have been denied because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents same-sex couples from having the federal benefit of immigration," explained Steve Ralls, communication director for Immigration Equality.
But, he added, since the Obama administration announced it is no longer defending DOMA, there have been some federal changes and an unofficial shift in policy from the Department of Homeland Security.
"There have been cases where the Department of Homeland Security intervened to proactively drop deportation proceedings," Ralls said.
For example, on June 28 the department dropped deportation efforts against Venezuela-born Henry Velandia, of New Jersey, who married his partner Josh Vandiver in Connecticut last year.
In light of these recent events, Herbert and Ueda are hopeful that their petition will remain pending until the courts have made a final decision regarding DOMA’s constitutionality.
"Whether (Ueda) receives a green card is going to be determined by the future of DOMA," said Ralls, "but I do think that, given the developments we’ve seen in other cases, she has a very good chance of having the petition held and being able to stay in Vermont with Frances."
Ralls hopes local lawmakers will weigh in on the matter in the meantime, encouraging the government to hold Ueda’s petition rather than denying it before the courts reach a decision. Already U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has expressed his support for the couple, calling their story "heart-breaking."
"Like any other Vermont couple, Frances and Takako deserve to be with the one they love," he said. He said the current law is harmful and hurtful to couples in Vermont and elsewhere.
"I will continue to push forward to fix that law and to work with Frances and Takako as their case develops," Leahy said.
Leahy also wrote a letter with other senators to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this year asking that same-sex marriage-based immigration petitions be held in abeyance pending a legislative repeal or a final determination on Defense of Marriage Act litigation.
The two departments declined to announce a blanket policy on such cases, but the response indicated that discretionary action would be considered, case by case.
For Ueda and Herbert, the show of support they received from Leahy’s office is mirrored every day by the people of Brattleboro, who they found very aware and accepting.
Herbert is originally from Michigan, where she met Ueda while both were attending college in 1980. She moved to Vermont 22 years ago; the two women kept in touch over the years, and 11 years ago Ueda moved to Vermont, too, leaving behind her family, friends, job and culture.
"My life was turned upside-down," she said.
Though she left Japan to be with Herbert, her full-time attendance in college dominated her life. She spent most of her time studying, trying to keep up with the other students despite hearing problems and the language barrier.
The subjects she studied were not necessarily her passions, she said, but she had to be enrolled in school full-time in order to keep her student visa.
"Our relationship was put on the back burner," said Ueda.
"The stress was astronomical," added Herbert.
Even with all the challenges, they love this state, they said Friday morning while sitting on the steps of the Dummerston Community Center.
"Just to listen to the birds and the insects -- where I came from was a city," said Ueda.
"Since I have lived here, it’s been continuous miracles," she said.
Ueda and Herbert said that after all these years they are finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
"Love is never wrong when it’s true and committed," said Herbert, "and it’s important for us loving couples to share our commitment with the world."
Jaime Cone can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.