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Finding Love in a Foreign Land

Two Couples Fight Immigration and More to Stay Together


Monday, May 20, 2013

We all need to hear a good love story every so often. So here are two:

UCSB graduate Alex said she hadn’t even thought about boys when she and her best friend planned to study abroad in Rome for a semester in fall 2011. But that changed after a week in Europe. Alex met Gareth, a bartender from Wales at a pub in Rome.

“She thought I was Irish. That was a big selling point,” Gareth said. Somehow the Irish get more attention than the Welsh. They’ve been together ever since.

Alex and Gareth
Click to enlarge photo

Kelsey Brugger

Alex and Gareth

Alex and Gareth have been living three months together, three months apart since they both left Rome in December 2011. Gareth’s been moving back and forth, splitting his life between Alex’s downtown apartment in Santa Barbara and his parent’s house in Wales, which, apparently, a lot of people don’t know is a small country located west of England and south of Scotland.

“At first I didn’t think English was his first language,” Alex said. “I thought it was Welsh.” They both laughed. Oddly enough, the “lost in translation” problem occurs between English speakers at times.

When they’re together, the focus of their lives is to be together in the present. When they’re apart, the focus is to make enough money to spend another three months together in the future. They’ve given up working toward a career for now.

We are not normal, they observed. Gareth plays “house-husband” during the day while Alex nannies for a family of three rowdy boys. Gareth cannot legally work here so he spends his time cleaning and cooking, walking along the beach, and at the Press Room pub off State Street.

“Gareth has almost made more friends here than I have,” Alex joked. When he was at Press Room a few weeks ago, a British traveler passing through Santa Barbara for one day recognized him from across the bar. “You were that bartender at that pub in Rome!” He was.

But his temporary life in Santa Barbara recently ended for the third time. This time, he won’t be coming back in three months. Ideally, he hopes to find a one-year sponsored internship in the U.S. in a specialized field in the near future. Otherwise, Alex will consider attending graduate school in Wales.

But immigration control is getting stricter, Gareth said.

Last time he landed at LAX, immigration officers interrogated him in a secluded room for an hour; they considered it a red flag that he’s spent more than six of the past 12 months in Santa Barbara. After explaining he was dating someone in S.B., the officers were hesitant to let him through customs. A girl is not on the short list of acceptable reasons for reentering the country three times in one year.

“There is no visa that allows for relationships,” Alex said. Either you’re married or you’re not. Anything in between is suspicious.

So why don’t they just get married? Their friends ask them a lot.

Because that’s too easy. The system wins and we lose, they said. Neither of them are ready for marriage. “And there could be a lot of repercussions,” Alex said.

Marriage should not be a quick fix to a problem. Forget legalities though, think about the emotional repercussions of wedding someone prematurely.

As for the immediate future, Gareth intends to work nonstop for the next few months. He wants to buy Alex a plane ticket to fly to Wales for just three days for his best friend’s wedding. “It would mean so much to me,” Gareth said.

It’s true what they say about love: it makes people do crazy things.

“It does get frustrating,” Gareth said. They will never have a normal relationship. If they want to make it work, eventually one of them will have to give up home forever. “It’s a lot to swallow,” he said.

I said two love stories, not fairytales.

Another transnational couple, Shelby and Peter, are also living in S.B. right now. They also constantly hear the green card joke.

Peter, unlike Gareth, actually is Irish. He met UCSB junior Shelby when he was part of the “Irish Invasion” in Isla Vista during the summer of 2011. Now he’s back on a three-month travel visa.

Peter has few complaints about his current life: he lives at the beach with his California girlfriend. He drinks beer and plays rugby. He’s even befriended two New Zealanders on his team; a kind of foreign camaraderie, he said.

Shelby said, “Peter’s teammates will come up to me and say, you should marry him so he can play rugby next year.”

Not surprisingly, an international relationship seems to warrant strong opinions. Friends and family members love to give both couples their two cents. At first, Alex and Gareth’s friends were skeptical and often unsupportive of their long-distance relationship. After noticing the strength of their relationship though, now all of the sudden their friends assume marriage is a no-brainer.

When I asked Peter and Shelby about their long-term plans, Peter said, “God, I guess we should have prepared for this interview more.”

International relationships are more and more common, Gareth said. The world is shrinking and with increasing popularity of study abroad programs and the availability of free applications like “Whats App” and Skype, governments need to find a way to accommodate transnational couples, he said.

These days, “just get married” is the last thing that most young couples hear. The extended adolescence has shaped this generation. The new norm is to be young and independent. Don’t let a guy hold you back from a career, young women often hear. I get it all of the time. I can only imagine what I’d hear from my family if I had come home from studying abroad in Paris with a French boyfriend.

But friends and family are not the only ones giving international couples their advice. The government has a lot to say too. Even engaged couples can only obtain three-month visas.

Although both Alex and Gareth and Shelby and Peter are willing to do almost anything to be together, neither couple are willing to give in to immigration laws and get married quite yet. But they’ve made each other their first priority.

The pragmatist in me realizes the hype that would ensue if the government started issuing “relationship visas,” considering the havoc produced by “green card marriages.” But the romantic in me believes these two couples have something worth fighting for, despite bureaucratic stipulations and family judgments. Ultimately people with a foreign love interest will have to make tough choices to have a future together. As if love isn’t complicated enough.

“We could give up, but why not see it out,” Gareth said.

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