When Derek Mize and Jonathan Gregg visited the U.S. embassy in London to get a passport for their 9-month-old daughter Simone, they were expecting it to be quick and easy. The couple even made lunch plans after. Instead, they spent hours watching every single opposite-sex couple who came into the office breezily get stride in and out, while they sat there looking on helplessly with a newborn baby.
“We proudly marched into that embassy,” Mize tells NewNowNext. “We are both American. We are married. We gave them our papers, and then the whole world came crashing down.”
According to Mize, the couple thought they were fully prepared for what was to come. When they went to the office in April 2019, they provided the woman working at the counter with their U.S. passports, their marriage certificate, and Simone’s birth certificate. The latter wasn’t easy to get. After Simone was born via a surrogate, receiving a copy of her birth records in the U.K. required a “thorough and complete vetting” of their entire lives, including visits with social workers, background checks, a review of their financial history, medical records checks, and visits to their home.
While Gregg and Mize passed that grueling vetting process with flying colors, the woman at the U.S. embassy office quickly shuffled away to speak with a supervisor when she saw two men’s names listed on Simone’s June 2018 birth certificate. Behind the glass, a group of government employees assembled in a huddle. Every 20 minutes, the worker would come back, ask the couple questions to determine which one of them was the “real” father, and return to the whispering horde.
Eventually, the woman delivered the bad news. Because Simone was born out of the country and her parents are not both biologically related to her, the U.S. government considers her born “out of wedlock.” “Your child is not an American citizen, according to our rules,” she said.
Mize says the couple felt “physically sick” when they learned they would be going home without a passport for their daughter.
“Because it was a special trip, we had splurged and got a nice hotel room for the next couple of days before we flew home,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get out of bed. For the next two days, I laid in a dark room and tried to take care of Simone the best that I could. We were so worried about what this meant for the rest of our lives.”
Gregg and Mize are one of three same-sex couples fighting the U.S. government to recognize their children’s rights to be recognized as citizens. On Tuesday, the advocacy groups Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal filed a case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia challenging the State Department’s decisions, which their legal team has called “cruel” and “unconstitutional.”
According to Karen Loewy, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, same-sex couples and their children are effectively being treated like “second-class citizens.”
“The Supreme Court has been clear that married same-sex couples cannot be denied the same protections that different-sex couples receive, and that includes the right to be recognized as their children’s parents regardless of who has a biological connection to a child,” Loewy says in a statement. “The State Department has no business refusing to recognize Simone as an American citizen just like her parents.”
Although Immigration Equality estimates that at least “three dozen couples” have sought out their services after their children were denied citizenship under the rule, two other cases are currently making their way through the courts. Allison and Stefania Zaccari-Blixt filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, while Elad and Andrew Dvash-Banks are headed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit after a California district court ruled in their favor in February. The Trump administration appealed that verdict.
While it could be months or even years before any of those cases are resolved, time is unfortunately not on Gregg and Mize’s side. Simone was issued a 90-day tourist visa that expires within the next week.
“There’s an urgency to the case,” Kristen Thompson, communications director for Immigration Equality, tells NewNowNext. “There hasn’t been any clear justification for why this policy is in place. We, as much as the families, would like to know why the State Department is defending an unconstitutional, illegal policy.”
BREAKING: We just filed a lawsuit with @IEquality against the Trump administration, representing a married same-sex couple whose daughter was denied US citizenship. #FamilyIsFamily https://t.co/wITGYkcKJb
— Lambda Legal (@LambdaLegal) July 23, 2019
While the Trump administration has declined to comment on pending litigation, the State Department has referred journalists to language on its website claiming the federal agency is simply adhering to policies set by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). According to the White House, the 1965 document requires “a child born abroad … be biologically related to a U.S. citizen parent,” and it claims that DNA testing can be submitted to determine a child’s parentage.
Spencer Tilger, public affairs manager for Immigration Equality, has said this interpretation of the decades-old law is both “strained” and “discriminatory.”
“Their policy is based on the laws that Congress has created, but they’re misinterpreting the law,” Tilger told NewNowNext in May. “[…] When a same-sex couple goes to a consulate [to register their child for U.S. citizenship], they’re always going to be asked about how they conceived the child. A married different-sex couple is never going to be asked that question.”
While it’s unlikely that Simone will be deported in a week, the situation leaves the couple in an extremely precarious position when they’ve already sacrificed so much just to have her. Because their surrogate was based in the U.K., they effectively couchsurfed for two years as they split their time between London and New York. They stayed with Mize’s parents in the U.S. and with Gregg’s family when they were abroad. When the surrogate became pregnant, Mize moved in with her until Simone was born.
“We did not have any space to ourselves and we did not have a lot of privacy in the last couple of years, but we did it with Simone in mind,” Mize says. “We didn’t know what she looked like. We didn’t know what her name would be, but we always dreamed of having this baby.”
The State Department's policy treats married same-sex couples like Derek Mize & Jonathan Gregg as if their marriages did not exist, unconstitutionally stripping their children born abroad of rightful US citizenship.
Sign the petition: https://t.co/IyoHr9eqbK #FamilyIsFamily
— Lambda Legal (@LambdaLegal) July 23, 2019
Even in the face of continued challenges to their family’s existence, the couple says they wouldn’t change a thing. They met in August 2014 at a gay swim team practice in New York and fell in love “really fast,” as Mize remembers. Gregg was visiting from London and intended to go to Fire Island the next day. After Mize dropped him off at Penn Station to help him get to his ferry on time, Gregg turned around and came back, afraid he had missed out on fate. By May, the two were married.
Today, the couple lives outside of Atlanta, where Gregg works as a management consultant and Mize as a legal headhunter. They say Simone’s arrival into the world was the true beginning of their happily ever after. Although Gregg says he expected to have “a more gory experience,” he felt connected to her “the minute she was born.”
“From the second I saw her, it was magical,” he says, mentioning that Tracy Chapman was playing as they held her for the first time.
“When she came out of the womb, she was warm and wet and I had my shirt off,” Mize adds. “She stuck to me like glue, and her body became my body. She laid her head right there on my breast, had her ear to my heartbeat, and just went to sleep. It was the beautiful moment of my life.”