by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Liza Monroy is a 34-year-old writer, whose memoir, The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took To Keep My Best Friend in America, and What It Taught Us About Love, was published Tuesday, has an extraordinary story to tell about love and law-breaking and how she went to extreme lengths to keep her friend here.
You hear about them all the time: sham marriages; you know, people who get together for whatever reason, but love is out of the question; maybe adoration, criminal intent, friendship or who knows what, but never love. Well, not the kind of love that a traditional husband and wife say 'I do' to anyway.
So yeah, that is the type of marriage that Monroy would agree to when she married her best friend Emir. According to Section 274 of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act, the maximum punishment for alien smuggling is a fine of $25,000 and 10 years in jail. For the alien, the penalty is immediate deportation.
'And we were about to take the risk,' Monroy told the New York Post.
Emir (not his real name) kept going and they had been married for more than a year, but it wasn't until the morning of his green card interview that we finally got around to exchanging rings.
Monroy and Emir first met in film class at Emerson College in Boston, in 1999.
'I'm the only child of a single mother and, from the very start of our friendship, Emir became the brother I never had,' she said. 'We had this connection because we both considered ourselves 'international students' - outsiders, if you will. He is from the Middle East and, though I'm American, most of my childhood and teenage years were spent abroad because of my mom's job in the Foreign Service.'
Emir was out to their friends in the U.S., but not to his family back home, because in his country, Gays are seen as less than human.
'He told me how, when he was in high school, he'd heard about Gays being beaten up and left to die by the highway, with nobody batting an eyelid,' Monroy said.
According to Monroy, before he moved to America, his mother had confronted him about, what, in her words was 'a phase.' She begged him to never reveal that side of himself to his father. He was the typical Muslim patriarch and, according to his mom, would have disowned Emir on the spot and even divorce her, too.
'I knew that if I stayed, I would always be one of those married men with children who still go looking for boys online and on street corners, fooling myself and not living my life,' explained Emir.
But in Boston, Emir could be himself, and when Monroy and he spent their last semester in Los Angeles, she says 'he was in his element, interning from sun-up to midnight for a studio producer.'
The trouble was that his student visa was about to expire in December 2001. Monroy said he'd religiously entered the green card lottery every year since he was a freshman, but he had about a 1 percent chance of being among the 55,000 people randomly chosen as winners.
Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly it was even harder for Emir to find work, because, says Monroy, of his 'Arabic name and the way he looked.'
'Who will hire me after this?' he said. 'If I go back, I'm required to enlist in the mandatory military service. Can you imagine what they'll do to me in there?'
Monroy recalled that over the previous year, she'd told Emir many times that she would marry him if he ever had any visa issues, so he could get a green card.
'I loved him, not in any sexual sense,' said Monroy, adding, 'but like a member of my family.'
But she says Emir never took the offers seriously, partly because she says, 'I don't think I'd meant them seriously.'
But now, with the increasing likelihood of him being sent home, she was convinced it was the only solution. 'So, at a West Hollywood party on Halloween night 2001 - me dressed as a cat and Emir as Harry Potter - I took a gulp of my cocktail, hopped off the bar stool and got down on one knee. 'Will you please agree to be my blushing bride already?' I asked.'
Monroy and Emir were married in Las Vegas, Nov. 17, 2001, and the ceremony was presided over by an Elvis impersonator.
'Do you promise to walk each other's hound dogs?' he asked.
'It was fitting for who we were and what our marriage was about,' Monroy said. 'We shared our first - and only - kiss on the lips as The King jiggled his hips.'
After that, the two had to live together for the minimum two years for the green card to become permanent. Monroy told the New York Post that the challenges they faced as a 'couple' were strangely typical, even though the marriage was so different.
'There were the usual issues about whose turn it was to cook and who did the housekeeping,' she said. 'He'd get irritated because I'd leave a mess. I'd get mad that he often seemed to be out partying with his friends without me.'
Eventually, the couple moved to Manhattan where they settled into a two-bedroom apartment in the East Village. Newly armed with his employment permit, Emir edited movies and Monroy got a position at a talent and literary agency.
'It was a fun, carefree time because, in New York - the city of immigrants - we felt anonymous,' she said.
She tried not to tell other people about her 'arrangement,' but Monroy got cavalier about it. 'I was 22 and obviously wanted to date guys,' she said. 'The odd time I really liked someone, after a few dates, I'd drop in the fact that Emir and I were married. It was a litmus test. If they freaked out about it, I didn't want to be with them.'
Emir, meanwhile, was much more cautious about telling anyone. He had a lot more to lose.
The green card interview was in August 2003.
'Although I was nervous, I didn't think it would be too much of a big deal,' Monroy said. 'We had bought the wedding bands, our photo album, our documents and all our ducks were in a row.'
In fact, the experience was terrifying, she says. 'I began to sweat the moment we passed through the metal detectors in the building in Federal Plaza. After an interminably long wait, our names were called.'
'Why is there a note in your file regarding a call to our tip line about you two having married solely for the gentleman's green card?' the man asked.
'My heart started racing. It could have been any number of people who knew Emir and I were married but he was Gay,' Monroy said. 'I tried to hide my panic. 'Probably an ex-boyfriend with a personal grudge,' I said, thinking on my feet.'
'Are you aware that taking shortcuts to get a green card is illegal?' said the agent.
Next, he asked us how often we had sex and then took Emir into a separate room and, five minutes later, returned alone. He looked Monroy directly in the eye and said 'Tell me. Is your husband circumcised?'
Monroy says she totally blanked. Amazingly, Emir and Monroy had never seen each other naked.
'We were very conservative, always changing in our own rooms and dressing at least in shorts and T-shirts in the communal area of the apartment,' she said. 'I'd never walked in on him when he was in the bathroom.'
She began to cry and when she refused to answer, the agent got up and left the room.
'That's it, I thought. Emir is getting deported,' she thought. 'But then the agent came back in. Emir was with him. To my relief, he wasn't handcuffed.'
'We're going to do an investigation,' the agent announced. 'You'll have to come back for another interview.'
Crushed, they left INS in silence. It was the middle of the day, but we went to a dark bar and ordered two Cosmopolitans.
'I am fucked,' said Emir.
But he wasn't. Just three weeks after the interview, Emir checked his e-mail. 'What? No way! This can't be real!' he shouted. He had won the green card lottery! That 1-in-1,000 gamble had paid off.
The two no longer had to prove their marriage was real. Because Amir had gotten into America legitimately, the investigation was scrapped.
Monroy says 'It was an incredible relief after going through all the emotions, ranging from desperation to fear. We actually stayed married and lived together in the East Village for another year. It was a safe, comfortable place for us to be.'
Inevitably, though, it was time to move on. 'We had to submit paperwork to the co-op board and, to my horror, I remembered that Emir's name was all over my tax returns. The board needed to know he didn't have rights to the property. We had to get divorced.'
Currently, Monroy is happily married and working at a university in California. Emir is now a U.S. citizen, a successful screenwriter and settled in New York City with his longtime partner.
Looking back, Monroy says she still doesn't regret what they did for one second.
'It was an act of true love,' she said.
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