By Meredith Hoffman and Ben Fractenberg
CHELSEA — Rev. Boon Lin Ngeo was overcome with emotion when his partner proposed to him at the altar of his Chelsea church just days after Albany legislators voted to make gay marriage legal.
But the Malaysian immigrant, who has been in the US on a student visa for more than a decade, still faces another daunting challenge — fighting to stay in the United States.
Ngeo and other immigrants in same-sex relationships in New York still remain vulnerable to deportation even after they marry, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government's recognition of same-sex marriages.
As a result of DOMA, which was passed in 1996, the federal government does not provide same-sex couples with marriage rights including tax benefits, family reunification and immigration rights.
Louis Martinez, Public Affairs Officer at the Immigration Customs Enforcement Field Office, said that the government would continue to enforce DOMA unless it was repealed or officially deemed unconstitutional.
But Ngeo thinks action needs to be taken.
"The federal government needs to do something," said Ngeo, 41. "There are so many foreigners who fall in love and can't stay in the country."
Ngeo, who came to America 12 years ago, knows he might have to leave after he finishes his sociology Ph.D. next May.
But as Malaysia's first openly gay minister and a minister with Metropolitan Community Church, the first LGBT-specific church, Ngeo is an outspoken advocate for equal rights. Ngeo has written nearly 30 books, and tours Malaysia and China to preach Christian acceptance of homosexuality.
"I was raised fundamentalist Christian myself, and thought being gay was a sin," said Ngeo, who was married to a woman for nine years before he accepted his homosexuality. "After I moved here with my wife I learned about my sexuality in a painful way, because something didn't feel right … and MCC inspired me to come out."
Then, on Sunday, Ngeo reached a whole new turning point — he got engaged to his partner, Phineas Newborn III, at their congregation at 446 West 36th St. Ngeo will continue to battle for gay rights, which he calls "human rights."
"Phineas also married a woman first, from France. She had no trouble getting a green card," said Ngeo. "Now that he's finally come out as a gay man, he has a constitutional right to pursue his happiness."
Apart from Ngeo's potential immigration ordeal, Newborn said he couldn't be happier, as he recalled his proposal to Ngeo in his church robe.
"I'd practiced the [proposal] song for my 13-year-old daughter, and she pretended to be Boon so I'd know what to do," said Newborn, a former Broadway actor was performed in Aida for years, and has his own website about hope amidst hardship, such as his battle with AIDS.
Newborn chuckled that the whole congregation knew about his proposal plan — except for Ngeo.
"It was our two-year anniversary," said Newborn. "The stars couldn't have aligned any better."
Still, the couple lives in uncertainty of their future, as do Tanya Domi and her Canadian partner, another couple contemplating a same-sex marriage.
Domi, 56, a Columbia professor who has been with her partner Debra (whose last name Domi asked to be withheld) for six years, said they were afraid to get married, because it could jeopardize Debra's immigration status.
"She should not do anything that would indicate that she would [try to] live in the U.S. permanently," said Domi. "To be married in the U.S. could potentially undermine her work permit."
Debra currently has a job in social work and a work permit, but if she loses her job — or retires —she must leave the country, said Domi. In the past two years Debra lost her job once, and had to leave and re-enter under a new work permit.
"We were really scared at that point," recalled Domi. "Without DOMA being reversed or repealed I may be forced to move to Canada to live with her."
Domi feels hopeful about the momentum of New York's new legislation creates for gay rights, but said the bill's passage was still "bittersweet" because of Debra's immigration struggles.
And Jay Gurewitsch, who has been enjoying New York's new bill due to increased sales in his shop Arcadia on Eighth Avenue, agreed that marriage seemed a risky option for his Canadian partner's immigration status.
"My partner's here right now with a work visa as my employee — he does my PR," said Gurewitsch. "We're engaged but we're hesitant … we might have the longest engagement ever."
Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the gay advocacy group Freedom to Marry, noted that DOMA not only denies immigration rights, but it prevents gay couples from more than 1000 other federal protections and responsibilities.
"DOMA's 'gay exception' to the way the federal government treats married couples is unfair and unconstitutional," Wolfson wrote in an email to DNAinfo.com. "The courts should strike down DOMA and honor all marriages equally."