Mississippi man fights to block deportation of HIV-positive partner
Even though the country’s travel ban on people with HIV/AIDS has been lifted, the repealed policy continues to keep a Gulfport, Miss., man away from his Filipino partner.
Roi Whaley recently saw Aurelio Tolentino in Canada, but the bi-monthly trip was bittersweet because the two men are unsure if it was last time they would see each other.
Whaley has been fighting to allow Tolentino to remain in the United States. Whaley, who now has terminal cancer, travels to Seattle every couple of months to see an oncologist. And he often flies to Canada to see his "Hunny Bunny," a nickname for Tolentino.
"The main thing for me, I don’t want to die alone," said Whaley while in Canada. "I have my friends and family, but it’s not the same as having your partner with you."
The two met in 2004 through an online support group for people living with HIV. Tolentino was in the United States on a work visa, but he was in a physically abusive relationship in California. Whaley gave Tolentino enough strength to leave his former boyfriend and get his own apartment.
One of the first things Tolentino wanted to do was to finally meet Whaley. He flew to New Orleans and Whaley picked him up at the airport. "I saw him walking up, and I knew this was the person I’d been looking for the past 40 years, and I knew I’d spend the rest of my life with him," recalled Whaley.
The two men spent a week together and even spent time with Whaley’s family. The trip went so well Tolentino planned a second visit, but his scheduled arrival was a day before Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast - Whaley lost everything and two months passed before he and Tolentino saw each other again.
With his future uncertain, Tolentino said, "I decided if I’m going to have to leave, it would be much better to live my last days in the U.S. with Roi."
Tolentino packed his car and made the two-day trip from California to Mississippi. "All I had to offer him was my FEMA trailer," recalled Whaley with a chuckle.
A life together in Mississippi, interrupted
For the first few months, the two worked day labor jobs for money and after a few months, Tolentino started a job at a local hospital. Whaley had retired as a casino supervisor from Harrah’s Casino in Biloxi.
Tolentino’s asylum application was transferred to New Orleans in 2007. A judge later rejected it because he had been in the country for more than a year-asylum seekers must apply for asylum status within one year of entering the United States.
"To have to go back to the Philippines was very disappointing," recalled Tolentino
It was especially disappointing for Whaley as the two had purchased a home together and Tolentino had purchased a new car. "Life was the way it was supposed to be in America," noted Whaley.
The judge acknowledged the two had a loving relationship, but he said he did not have enough evidence to prove Tolentino would be beaten if he returned to his homeland.
The judge granted Tolentino a voluntary bond, which gave him two months to leave the United States.
A sad goodbye
On July 11, 2007, Whaley drove his partner to the Louis Armstrong International airport-where they first met-in New Orleans and said goodbye."July 11, 2007, was the worst and hardest day of my life because I wouldn’t know what would happen," said Whaley.
Tolentino had to fly to Seattle because his immigration status barred him from flying into Canada. He walked across the border and asked officials to consider him a refugee.
And just as it had in the United States, Tolentino was eventually able to receive a work permit and find work at a hospital in Canada.
Tolentino moved to Canada, where his mother is a legal permanent resident. He was able to receive a work permit and find work at a hospital. His asylum application however, was declined in January, and "he is now facing the very real possibility of being forced to return to the Philippines, where he was previously attacked and beaten for being gay", said Immigration Equality spokesperson Steve Ralls.
At the same time Tolentino left the Gulf Coast, Whaley discovered he had terminal brain cancer. He collapsed at work two days before a scheduled trip to visit Tolentino in Canada. Whaley was hospitalized and underwent brain surgery.
"First thing you want is your partner by your side."
"I didn’t know if I would live or die," said Whaley of his prognosis. "The first thing you want is your partner by your side. It was tearing him up not being able to be there... The thought of me passing and him not being allowed to come to the funeral was too much."
In spite of dwelling on Canada’s rejection of Tolentino’s asylum status, the two married on Jan. 17. California had recognized the couple as domestic partners since 2005.
Were Whaley and Tolentino a married heterosexual couple, Whaley would be eligible to apply to sponsor Tolentino for American residency. Congress is currently considering the Uniting American Families Act, a bill that would end discrimination against gay and lesbian bi-national couples, but Ralls noted its passage would unlikely change Whaley and Tolentino’s situation.
Meanwhile, the two men speak everyday.
"We try to make it like we’re at home," said Whaley as he noted the impact their separation has had. "I don’t sleep in our bed anymore. I sleep on my sofa. It’s a just a big empty bed now, it’s just there."
As Whaley’s health continues to deteriorate, he tries to remain optimistic. "I know being HIV-positive for 24 years and having brain cancer is not a good recipe, but I’m fighting as hard as I can," he said. "We really need for him to be able to come back and work here."
Tolentino also remains optimistic.
"He’s not going to die alone because we’re going to be like old farts," he said.
Hope from Capitol Hill
Whaley has reached out to Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor for assistance. Taylor’s office told him he has agreed to contact the State Department and other governmental agencies on the couple’s behalf. And Ralls added Immigration Equality attorneys would follow-up with Taylor’s office to seek support to grant Tolentino a humanitarian parole visa, which the U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services grants to someone based on "urgent humanitarian reasons or if there is a significant public benefit." Tolentino would have to leave the country once the status’ period expires, and he would not be able to work.
"At the moment, we are researching employment opportunities for Tolentino because he is a registered nurse," said Ralls.
Tolentino has also offered to pay the fees for any hospital or facility that would sponsor him and allow him to work in the United States, but Whaley stressed employment is only one consideration. "All we want is a place to call home," he said. "We want to be acknowledged as a loving couple at peace."