When OutSmart last talked to Dario Mariani, 33, in July of 2018, he was preparing to embark on an ultra-marathon that would take him 155 miles across the Gobi Desert in Mongolia over the course of seven days. Now, in 2020, Mariani is still an avid runner, but you won’t find him racing on foot around Houston or the Gobi. Sadly, a global pandemic coupled with the Trump administration’s corrupt immigration policy has Mariani temporarily detained in Aberdeen, Scotland.
“I miss home. Believe it or not, I miss Houston weather. I just got back from a run and it was only in the low 50s. I think I miss the heat and the sweating,” says Mariani.
Originally from Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, Mariani transferred to Texas Tech on a student visa in 2008, where he earned a degree in petroleum engineering. After graduating, Mariani began working in the oil and gas industry in Houston. He is a quality, health, safety, and environmental data specialist with the same company he started with just out of college. That employer is now sponsoring him in attaining his green card, the last step before naturalization in the United States’ long and confusing immigration process. It is the delay in attaining his green card that landed Mariani in Scotland, where he remains waiting today.
The Long Road to Citizenship
“There are several stages to getting a green card,” explains Mariani. “You are allowed to work in the U.S. under what is called an H1-B visa. That visa lasts three years, and you can renew it only twice. I was on my second H1-B visa when I went to Mongolia [for the ultra-marathon]. In November of 2018, my second visa was about to expire so my company decided to sponsor me for my green card. However, the process was taking so long that there was a gap between the visa expiring and the green card beginning. That meant I couldn’t legally make money in the U.S. I was lucky that the company valued me enough to create a business case for me to be relocated to Aberdeen, because otherwise I could have lost my job [and then] returned to Venezuela. When November 2019 came, my visa expired and I was on a flight to Aberdeen. Two days later, I reported to work.”
Immigrating legally to the U.S. is a tremendously complicated process. Even immigrating in order to get married is a very long and complicated process that is usually romanticized by movies and television. The process of immigrating for work reasons is even more complicated, and not as often depicted by Hollywood.
“Basically, during the process the company has to prove my worth, and [demonstrate] that there is no one else [in the U.S.] qualified to do the job that I am doing,” Mariani notes. “That process takes several years, normally. The initial estimate was that I would be able to return to the U.S. by July 2020, but then we hit a couple of roadblocks that moved the timeline. COVID-19 happened, and that extended my time here by a couple of months. I thought I might return by October 2020, but then the President’s executive order came out and now I will have to wait until 2021.”
The executive order Mariani refers to is President Trump’s decree that immigrants like Mariani will not be permitted to return to the U.S. until January 2021, out of concern for the continued spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, President Trump is encouraging students and teachers to return to schools in states like Texas where COVID-19 is spiking. Sending students to school has been described by experts as a “super spreader” scenario, but yet Mariani can’t return to his Houston home and continue working online.
Mariani considers the situation to be the perfect storm of a broken immigration system coupled with a global pandemic. Then add to that an executive branch that is unfriendly to all types of immigration, legal or otherwise. At times, it seems like Mariani may never return to the States.
A Long-Distance Relationship
There is still another element that is making this waiting game even more challenging: Mariani’s boyfriend, musician Mike Lococo, who is located in Austin. Where the immigration system has created professional headaches, the pandemic and Trump have created an impossible personal situation.
“Dario and I are fortunately in an age where we have FaceTime so that we can communicate with and ‘see’ each other regularly. But the downside is that now our jobs have switched to working remotely, requiring us to be in front of our computers all day. Our work lives are busier than ever,” laments Lococo.
Lococo is as multi-talented as his boyfriend—an interactive designer at Dell by day, and the drummer in his band, Transit Method, by night. Amidst COVID-19, remote working, and a long-distance relationship, he and his band have been preparing for the online release of their new rock album entitled The Madness.
“It’s coincidental that the name of the album was decided on before COVID-19. It was intended to be a commentary on our lives in 2019,” says Lococo, acknowledging the irony.
The two men have not been able to see each other in person since the pandemic forced the world into lockdown in March. The couple had visited Aberdeen and London shortly before the lockdown, so Lococo was able to get a taste of what Mariani’s life has been like over the past several months. Lococo had initially planned to go visit Mariani in Aberdeen this summer, but that was sidelined when the European Union put a moratorium on American travelers to Europe. But even if he could fly, Lococo has concerns about visiting Mariani.
“The selfish part of me wants to say yes [to a visit], but the pandemic is serious and I’m coming from a hot spot. I need to make sure I’m not putting other people at risk, including Dario. I’m still cautious. I miss him so much, every day. It’s really hard, and we both have our moments where it’s harder on one than the other. We try to lift each other up as much as possible,” says Lococo.
For now, Mariani waits in Aberdeen for his green card to process, and for Trump to lift the executive order barring him from returning to Houston. There is no anticipation that the ban will be removed sooner than January 2021, and the Trump administration is likely to use COVID-19 as an excuse to extend the order, regardless of any rational basis for it.
Longing for an End
“If I wasn’t dating Dario, that executive order would have had no effect on me. I’m more aware of the impact of these laws, and how sneakily they can be put into effect and what we need to do to change them,” says Lococo.
Mariani experienced a similar political awakening as a young man in Venezuela, a once-prosperous nation that has tragically developed into a collapsing dictatorship. He sympathizes with his boyfriend.
“Mike is going through something similar to what I went through. I remember the strife and student protests in Caracas. I hate everything that Venezuela is going through right now, but one thing I am thankful for is how much it made me care for politics, and how much influence politicians hold over every single aspect of our lives. Now that [we see that corruption is] rampant in the U.S., a lot of people are starting to understand what exactly is at stake.”
Lococo is glad that he can do something about their situation from his home in Austin, even if Mariani can’t, by voting on November 3.
For more information on Mike Lococo’s band Transit Method, go to transitmethod.net.