McDiarmid gains first Nebraska ‘DOMA’ green card work permit out of federal immigration offices in Omaha
By Austin Koeller
It began in a UNK chemistry class in the spring of 2003. As health science students, Alicia Behn and Laura McDiarmid were trying to figure out their homework for class one day.
“We met over homework,” McDiarmid said. “We were in the student lounge over at Bruner right before class.”
“We met during that class,” Behn said. “We did study groups together, homework together and all that stuff together. We became friends.”
After that class, they took more classes together. “We spent a lot more time together,” Behn said. “Over one of the summers, we spent more time together. She would go back to Gothenburg during the summer, and I was here in Kearney. I kept asking her to come back.” Then, the relationship changed.
While they knew that they liked each other as more than just friends, the pair did say that they did not necessarily define themselves as “homosexual.”
“I didn’t know for sure. I never even thought about it,” Behn said. “I definitely felt different with Laura. I never felt the way I felt with her. It was definitely something new for me that I’d never felt before.”
McDiarmid said that she never labeled their relationship, and whatever attraction was felt between them happened without much thinking.
Despite the fact that they had a strong relationship, Behn and McDiarmid did not “come out” to others.
Behn, a lifelong Kearney native, said she knew a ton of people here, and she knew from the attitude in high school that others looked down on same-sex relationships. “If you were, you didn’t talk about it, and the people that were out in school were ridiculed.”
While they were not open about their relationship, the couple said that some people did catch on. Anybody paying attention could have figured out that we were a lot closer than just friends, McDiarmid said.
“It wasn’t in the dark for a long time. It was a couple years I think,” Behn said. “We just told people we were close to, close friends that we knew we trusted, that we knew wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
While they were open to their friends, the couple had not yet come out to their parents.
“When I officially told them, I was a little nervous because my family is from small town Nebraska, and I was nervous about them keeping that closed-minded attitude,” Behn said.
Both said that coming out was not as big of a deal as they feared it would be as their families already assumed that they were a couple after years of being together.
“It was already such a big part of my family life as it was, so it was not a big stretch for them to say, ‘OK,’’’ McDiarmid said.
After coming out to their families, Behn and McDiarmid moved in together. Behn graduated with a degree in nursing and had begun work as a nurse. McDiarmid graduated from UNK in 2006 with a degree in respiratory therapy, and again in 2012 with a degree in nursing.
When the couple was on vacation in California, McDiarmid proposed to Behn.
“We went out there, I planned it out with our friends, we went wine tasting and I proposed then,” McDiarmid said.
Five years into the relationship, in 2008, the couple married in an Iowa courthouse. Despite the fact that Iowa legally recognized the marriage, the union was not recognized in the state of Nebraska, nor was it recognized at the federal level because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) had defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.
“We got married, then Alicia applied for a green card for me,” McDiarmid said.
“We were quickly denied,” Behn said. “DOMA defined marriage between a man and a woman. So, our marriage was not valid according to them. That’s why our green card was denied the first time.”
The couple faced the ongoing battle as McDiarmid continued the effort to obtain a green card. McDiarmid, born in Manchester, England, had to be off of her parent’s visa when she turned 21.
“I had to do a change of status to a student visa,” McDiarmid said. “The student visa allowed McDiarmid to stay in the United States as a student. But once she graduated, she was not on a student visa, nor did she have a work permit.
“That was our biggest challenge, trying to get her to stay here and be able to work,” Behn said.
The couple went through all of the options to find a way for McDiarmid to stay in the country legally and work. After considering the options, McDiarmid made the decision to go back to school to seek a second degree in nursing. McDiarmid said that the plan looked promising, until the law changed.
After the nursing visa expired, McDiarmid said she had nowhere to go and had to contact an immigration lawyer to figure out the options.
Then, six years into the legal battle, on June 26, the couple received the news that they had been waiting to hear: the United States Supreme Court had struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. This meant that their fight for marriage recognition was over. Their marriage was now recognized at the federal level.
“When they announced it, we were super excited,” Behn said. “I was in a tears of joy kind of situation. Our lawyer contacted us and was excited because that was all the difference we needed as far as our immigration paperwork went.”
The couple tried once again to apply for a green card. At the end of October, they went in for their interview. The interview proved successful, and Behn and McDiarmid became the first same-sex couple to be approved for a green card through the Omaha office.
“I’m pretty proud of that fact,” Behn said. “Whenever we thought we were getting over a road-block, something else would come and completely shut everything down. I think it’s pretty awesome for all the roadblocks that we’ve gotten.”
McDiarmid said that her life has become easier, and a lot less stressful now that she has been approved for a green card. “With that comes a work permit and the ability to now take my boards and get licensed for nursing,” McDiarmid said. “It was kind of like an all encompassing, big sigh of relief because it has been 10 years in the making for us.”
“Laura can work and have a career,” Behn said. “We can finally have the life that we want to have. We’ve been on hold for the last six years. I’m excited for things to come.”
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