The Northern Westchester Examiner

Somers Teacher, Husband Win Fight to Validate Union

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By Janine Bowen

On November 11, 2011, at 11:11 a.m., Somers Middle School teacher Gary Wanderlingh married Sam Conlon in a small and casual ceremony. With the grooms dressed in jeans and t-shirts and the price tags still on their rings, the couple exchanged vows in hopes that they could start their lives together.

Instead, the couple, who share a home in Connecticut, spent the last two years fighting to have their union legally recognized by the United States government.

Conlon is from England, and when he filed for legal residence in 2012, citing his marriage to an American citizen, he was denied based on The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), although the law had already been struck down by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Connecticut. Conlon and Wanderlingh filed their paperwork again last January, asking the government to allow Conlon to stay in the country while DOMA was debated by the U.S. Supreme Court, but they were again denied. By March, Conlon was an illegal resident.

“The government had no reason to not at least hold the petition so Sam could have held status and gotten a work permit and driver’s license. But they were summarily denied,” said Kevin Dehghani, an attorney for Wanderlingh and Conlon.

On October 11, just one month shy of the couple’s second anniversary, their application was approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. After the approval, Conlon received his green card in the mail.

“We stared at it for about 20 minutes, just in shock,” Wanderlingh said. “Everything we went through was just to get this little plastic card.”

Conlon said it was nearly impossible to accurately express his emotions after living in fear of being separated.

“When I opened the envelope and found the card inside, I just felt like a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” Conlon said. “I kept reading the name and looking at my picture on the card, still in disbelief that the nightmare was finally over and we could begin our lives properly at last”

The couple’s ordeal was a trying one, with Wanderlingh considering at one point the possibility of quitting his job and relocating to England. He was forced to take additional jobs in addition to his full-time position as art teacher at Somers Middle School while Conlon could do nothing but sit at home.

“I have a 215-pound baby at home,” Wanderlingh joked, before noting the more serious ramifications of the situation they had been placed in. “He can’t do anything until I get home. He is reliant on me…he hasn’t had the chance to go out and make his own friends or do any of those things that people should be able to do.”

When DOMA was struck down by the Supreme Court in June, Wanderlingh and Conlon were forced to wait to have their case reopened by the Citizenship and Immigration Services, even as other couples in similar situations received their green cards. Around the same time, Wanderlingh learned that their second application, which had been denied last December, was inadvertently deleted instead of processed.

“I understand that this is what every couple [filing for a green card] goes through, but they didn’t have to give up their entire private life just to prove their existence and the severity of their situation,” Wanderlingh said. “We [were] really running the risk of not being able to remain here…all because the government is not following the laws.”

Wanderlingh’s sister, Suzanne, expressed her frustration caused by government red tape.

“For me, one of the most infuriating aspects of witnessing their struggle is to watch the issue play out in politics,” she said. “There has never been anything political about their struggle. It is personal…it is their life, my entire family’s life and Sam’s entire family’s life.”

The couple was told that their applications would not be revisited until December 2013. That is when they, along with Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, spoke up to demand what they believed they rightfully deserved. The couple never intended to become activists, but they made the decision to share their story publicly to make sure they could remain together.

“Going public was the last resort in order to save our family and save my career,” said Wanderlingh, who was initially fearful what impact public statements could have on his teacher’s job.

Wanderlingh was pleasantly surprised from the reaction he received from parents and students at Somers Middle School, a school he also attended as a child. The PTA parents, many of whom knew Wanderlingh from their days as his classmate, offered support, even starting a Facebook campaign. The students were happy that when school resumed in September, their teacher was still around.

“There are probably not a lot of eighth-grade boys going around giving high fives to their teachers and saying ‘It’s good to see you,’” said Wanderlingh. “When I left in June, I left with the anticipation of having to leave the country. [The students] said hello in a way that I knew meant, ‘I’m happy you’re still here.’”

Although the couple always wanted to stay in their Connecticut home so that Wanderlingh could remain near his mother and continue teaching in Somers, a district where he has taught for 18 years, moving to England would have actually been the easier option. For more than a year-and-a-half the British government had already recognized their marriage.

“Ironically, I used to go to England all the time as a kid, to the point that my parents were afraid I would never come back,” Wanderlingh said. “I worried that it would be a be-careful-what-I-wish-for situation where, now, I would have to live in England.”

Wanderlingh referred to last month’s victory as a weight being lifted off of him and his spouse. Friends and family have already noticed a difference in the short time since the application was approved. Wanderlingh’s sister said it had been like a black cloud hanging over them.

“The physical difference in them is unmistakable,” Suzanne Wanderlingh said. “There is a lightness to them, especially in their eyes.”

“I am so pleased to see that Sam and Gary’s petition has been granted, finally providing this couple the immigration rights and security that all married couples are due,” said Blumenthal, who was instrumental in processing the application.

Although the victory has been won, Wanderlingh noted there is still work to be done. Conlon must apply for his social security card and get a driver’s license. In addition, the couple must decide whether or not to pursue a discrimination case against the government, especially since the working papers that arrived with Conlon’s green card were dated from August, but not sent until October.

Wanderlingh and Conlon are not planning a big party to commemorate this step forward, nor will they be taking any celebratory trips, as Wanderlingh is both out of money and personal days at work, but they are still reveling in the fact that their lives can now begin.

“The celebration is just knowing that we’ll be together forever now,” he said.

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