The green card finally arrived Friday, more than 12 years after their struggle began and two days before they celebrated the 13th anniversary of the love that kept them going through moments of despair.
Tim Coco, a Haverhill resident, and Genesio Oliveira, a native of Brazil, did not set out to be activists. But then Oliveira was denied asylum in the United States, and Coco was not allowed to sponsor him for legal residency because the federal government did not recognize their same-sex marriage. Oliveira was sent back to Brazil for three years, and the two men then became activists.
“It’s a relief now, because now it is the end. Now I’m free,” said Oliveira, 35, in a phone interview Saturday. “But it’s a mixed feeling. I get angry sometimes. It took forever. It was a huge battle to change the history of the United States.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who fought for years as a senator to help the couple, writing letters and making calls on their behalf and filing private relief bills, said in a statement that the green card’s arrival was “the ultimate happy ending.”
“Sometimes all these big policy debates remind you, it’s all just about people. If you do what’s right for people, the policy has a way of coming around years later,” Kerry said. “And thank God policy has finally started to catch up with what was so obviously right.”
Coco and Oliveira, who now share a home in Haverhill with their five Maltese dogs, met on Jan. 4, 2002, while Oliveira vacationed in Boston on a tourist visa. They fell in love, and that year, Oliveira applied for asylum, saying a doctor had raped him in Brazil when he was 16 and he suffered discrimination in his native country because he is gay. But although a judge found his story credible, his application was denied.
Coco and Oliveira married in Massachusetts in 2005. But federal law, which supersedes state law in immigration matters, did not recognize their union, and Coco was not allowed to sponsor Oliveira the way a heterosexual partner could have. In 2007, Oliveira was ordered back to Brazil.
“Every setback became motivation to forge ahead,” said Coco, 53. “The best legal minds said it wasn’t possible. . . . Everybody said, ‘We’re so sorry, but this isn’t going to work.’ ”
Despite knowing that it would not be accepted, the couple filed a petition for Coco to be allowed to sponsor Oliveira in 2008. Jane Chiang, the immigration attorney who filed it on their behalf, said they were prepared to appeal their case all the way to the Supreme Court.
“They had no reason to hope for [Oliveira] to come back, if they were being realistic. If they were to sit down and look at their circumstances from an analytical frame of mind,” said Chiang. But, she said, “they made it through. It’s just incredible.”
From Brazil, Oliveira was able to travel anywhere in the world — except home to Haverhill. “We would have Christmas in England, reunions in Brazil, but we couldn’t be in the US,” said Coco. During their three years of separation, Coco’s mother died, and Oliveira was not able to attend the funeral.
With the help of Kerry, Oliveira was allowed to return temporarily in 2010.
But, the couple said, they were facing possible separation again when, in June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, meaning that, for the first time, gay and lesbian US citizens and green-card holders could apply to sponsor foreign spouses for legal residency.
But the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly and the two faced another setback: Their 2008 petition had been filed so long ago that it took more legal wrangling to get the government to process the original instead of starting over from scratch.
Their petition was approved in August 2013, Coco said, and the couple has waited since then for the adjustment of status. A few days before the arrival of the green card — the common name of the document showing permanent legal residency — they got a note of the decision welcoming Oliveira to the United States. “That’s the first welcome he’s received in 12 years,” said Coco.
Kerry said the couple defined for him the word “inspiring.”
“I got to know them not just as constituents but as two people as committed to their love and their relationships as any I’d ever met. I wondered how many straight couples could endure what they had endured,” Kerry said. “What a trial. What an ordeal.”
Though their struggle was long and painful, Coco and Oliveira never considered giving up.
“It was never about my rights, because I’m an immigrant,” said Oliveira. “It was about [Coco]. He’s American. He was born here. He’s lived here his entire life, his whole family is here. . . . You can either give up, or you can fight for things.”
They are proud of America; Coco said he always knew his country would come through. And they say the battle only cemented their relationship.
“This has only made our love for each other stronger, and it’s actually made our marriage better,” said Coco.
They have one final hurdle: Oliveira plans to apply for citizenship, a process he cannot start for at least three years. But, Coco said, perhaps they will try to have the process expedited.
“I suppose we have one last fight left in us,” he said.
On the morning the green card arrived, both men were headed out to work — Coco to his advertising agency and Oliveira to the restaurant where he waits tables — and did not have time to celebrate.
But for Sunday, the anniversary of the day they met, they planned a special dinner with a very special dessert: a cake decorated as a green card.
Maria Sacchetti of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.