ORINDA -- In October, the federal government told married Orinda couple Brian Willingham and Alfonso Garcia their bid for a green card to keep Garcia from being deported to Mexico had been denied. The basis for that, the couple was told -- the Defense of Marriage Act.
Willingham and Garcia appealed, and on Nov. 21 had a last-ditch court hearing before an immigration judge. Hope was diminishing. and their attorney told them that to keep Garcia -- who has lived in the East Bay since his parents moved him from Michoacan, Mexico, when he was 14 -- in the country would take significant immigration reform or a repeal of DOMA.
The couple's dream came true Wednesday morning.
"I was just in shock," said Willingham, 38, as he prepared to head to San Francisco to participate in the Castro District celebration Wednesday night of the Supreme Court's striking down of DOMA that morning.
"Alfonso was in shock and disbelief, and then he started crying tears of joy."
The court decision validated more than two years of fighting -- a battle that began with a routine traffic stop.
Garcia was fingerprinted after being ticketed for speeding over the Bay Bridge, and within hours he was placed on an immigration hold. He eventually was released on bail, and has been out on bond since.
The couple, who married in New York in 2011, joined Stop The Deportations - The DOMA Project, an advocacy group cofounded by their attorney to help raise awareness. If Garcia, 36, had been deported, he would not have been able to return legally to the United States for 10 years.
In October, an immigration judge -- waiting for Garcia's green card petition to be approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services -- granted Garcia a second continuance.
Days later, they received a denial letter from the federal government:
"The DOMA applies as a matter of federal law whether or not your marriage is recognized under state law. Your spouse is not a person of the opposite sex. Therefore under the DOMA your petition must be denied."
It appeared Garcia would be deported under provisions of that 1996 federal law.
They got a third continuance at a May hearing after appealing the denial to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and spent the next month on pins and needles awaiting the Supreme Court's decision, Willingham said.
"We've been stressed out 24 hours a day for the last two years because if they did deport him ... we'd have to look for a new country to live in together," Willingham said.
Other couples in The DOMA Project who had immigration hearings scheduled for Wednesday brought the Supreme Court decision to their hearings -- and had their deportation processes halted.
"It took 29 months and a lot of hard work by many other people than just us," Willingham said, "but the Supreme Court's decision finally gave us equal rights like everyone else."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.