Sen. John Kerry has asked the Obama administration to grant asylum to a gay man who was forced to return to Brazil after he married a U.S. citizen in Massachusetts.
Genesio "Junior" Oliveira has been separated from his husband, Tim Coco, since August 2007, when he left the country after his request for asylum and an appeal were denied.
Oliveira asked for asylum in 2002, saying he was raped and attacked by a physician as a teenager in Brazil and feared persecution because of his sexuality. The Associated Press does not typically name rape victims, but Oliveira speaks openly about his case and allows his name to be used.
In a letter sent Thursday to Attorney General Eric Holder, Kerry said Immigration Judge Francis Cramer found Oliveira's testimony to be credible and his fear of living in Brazil genuine. However the judge denied the claim, saying the man "was never physically harmed" by the rape, the letter said.
Kerry called the ruling "outrageous."
"Tim and Junior have played by the rules since day one," Kerry said. "Junior's asylum claim is a legitimate one and has been recognized as such."
While Brazilians are generally more tolerant of homosexual conduct than their neighbors in Spanish-speaking Latin America, the country remains something of a paradox.
Judges have granted foreign partners in gay relationships the right to residence and have authorized civil unions that bestow many of the same benefits of marriage to gay couples, but many segments of society remain openly hostile to homosexuals.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review will not confirm or deny whether an immigrant has requested asylum. The Department of Justice said Holder would review the letter and respond to Kerry, but would not comment at this time.
In an interview Friday, Kerry would not speculate on how the Obama administration might rule on the request.
"But I think that, in my sense, justice and compassion require us to deal with this as a valid asylum case," said Kerry. "(Oliveira's) safety is at stake living in Brazil, that's been proven."
"Nobody's asking to overturn or change the federal law. This is really a humanitarian situation that deserves an appropriate focus," he said.
The Massachusetts senator said he got involved in the case after Coco contacted his office and asked for help.
Immigrants also can apply for residency if they marry U.S. citizens. But the federal government does not recognize gay marriages under the Defense of Marriage Act, and Oliveira's request to remain in the United States based on his relationship with Coco was denied last month.
Coco said they filed an appeal of that decision Friday.
The couple met in 2002, when Oliveira was on vacation. He began the asylum process that year after returning to Massachusetts to be with the 47-year-old Coco.
"We didn't go into it to be activists, we went into it to be together," Coco said.
The couple married in 2005 and bought a home in Haverhill, north of Boston, for them and their Maltese dog, Q-Tip. Meanwhile, Oliveira got a Social Security number and driver's license and began attending community college to learn English. His goal was to attend medical school.
"We have so many things," said Coco, who owns a corporate communications business. "We bought the house together; it'll be six years this year. There's so much we wanted to do (with the house), and I don't want to touch anything until he comes back."
After losing their appeal in 2007, Oliveira was given 60 days to leave the country. Aside from short trips — including a three-week vacation in England over Christmas — and frequent video calls on the computer, the husbands have not been together since. Oliveira was denied a visa to return to Massachusetts last year for the funeral of Coco's mother.
"I don't know that we really believed we could lose this asylum case or that we would run out of appeals," Coco said.
Oliveira now lives with his mother, helping her run a boarding house for students.
The 2000 census found at least 36,000 gay and lesbian couples in the United States in which one partner was a citizen and one was an immigrant, said Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, which advocates for gay and lesbian immigrants. Unlike heterosexual couples, they can't use their relationships to stay together in the United States, she said. Asking for asylum is a much more difficult process.
"Their relationship isn't being treated equally, and at the end of the day, hardworking American citizens who play by the rules are forced to choose between their country and the people they love," Tiven said.
Kerry has co-sponsored a bill that would allow gays and lesbians from other countries to become legal residents based on their permanent relationships with U.S. citizens in the same manner as heterosexual couples.
Coco said he and Oliveira would eventually do whatever it takes to be together.
"We will be, even if it does mean I leave the U.S., but we're hoping that will not be the only option," he said.