After being denied permanent residency in the United States in 2017, Eddie Fernandez and his husband Tyler Thom heavily weighed the only two options they felt they had: continue living daily in fear of deportation, or leave voluntarily and head to another country.
“Living life undocumented is difficult,” said Fernandez, who is originally from Mexico. “You cannot tell your friends or people you know that you are undocumented, otherwise they can either call immigration or call your job. So you have to live from the shadows all the time.”
The couple had a home, established careers, and a wide network of friends and family, but eventually they decided last year to pack their belongings in a seven-metre U-Haul truck and drive from Milwaukee, Wisc., to their new chosen home in Toronto.
The couple’s last days living in the U.S. and their 16-hour journey across the border are documented in a new Netflix series called Living Undocumented. The six-part documentary follows eight families in the U.S. living with uncertainty about their immigration status.
Fernandez, 33, had been living undocumented after moving from Mexico at age 14 to be with his mother, who was undergoing cancer treatment.
After marrying Thom, 31, an American citizen, in 2015, Fernandez received DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and eligibility to apply for permanent residency.
‘Ultimate kiss of death’
When his application was denied in 2017, he found out it was because he had allegedly falsely claimed having U.S. citizenship on his landing papers. Because of an immigration law passed by the Clinton administration in 1996, this meant he is now permanently barred from ever becoming a U.S. citizen.
“It’s just this kind of ultimate kiss of death,” said Thom.
After U.S. President Donald Trump took office, the couple’s fears of DACA ending escalated and they started looking at immigrating to countries like Mexico, Ireland, New Zealand, and finally, Canada.
Neither had ever visited their northern neighbour before, but after doing some research, they both “really quickly fell in love.” They chose Toronto because it was a “big city, gay-friendly and more safe.”
The couple applied for Canadian permanent residency in July 2017. They were approved in October with a Confirmation of Permanent Residence (COPR) document. But in order to be granted permanent resident status, they would need to physically go to Canada.
‘The first thing I saw was a Canadian flag’
In May 2018, as the primary applicant of the immigration process, Thom flew to Toronto on his own to get his COPR stamped and officially become a permanent resident.
“It was kind of overcast here in Toronto and so when the plane started to clear the clouds, I remember the first thing I saw was a Canadian flag. I just immediately started crying that it was literally my first vision of Canada,” Thom said.
Although Fernandez had also been approved for permanent residency, Thom wanted to confirm with border agents that his husband would have no problem entering Canada.
He spent the next few days finding a place to live, setting up bank and phone accounts, and exploring the city that he was about to call home.
Two months later, with a Netflix film crew of around 20 people following them, the couple packed up their home in Milwaukee and said goodbye to loved ones at a farewell party.
“It was really difficult leaving my family and friends,” Fernandez said.
After a 16 hour drive, the crew reached the Canada-US. border at Windsor in the middle of the night and Fernandez landed as a permanent resident.
“Eddie and I had the tightest hug we’ve ever had and it’s the most I’ve ever cried,” said Thom. “I was just getting to that point of having that sense of relief that it’s finally done, it’s finally over, like, we’re here. It was just the most emotional moment of my entire life getting past that point.”
Fernandez was particularly emotional crossing the border. He was happy to be welcomed into Canada and for new opportunities, but also wrestling with the reality that he would possibly never enter the U.S. again.
Counting down the days to apply for citizenship
Since moving to Toronto, the couple has settled into a home, found jobs, embraced taking the TTC, and made new friends, mostly through joining a gay dodgeball league. They’ve also had visitors from the U.S., including friends from Milwaukee who joined them for Toronto Pride.
“I tell this to my friends and family back home all the time, that I really feel like I’m living my best life here. This is the first time in my whole life,” said Thom.
“Since I moved to Toronto, to Canada, I feel the difference,” said Fernandez. “I don’t feel stress. I just feel free.”
Thom and Fernandez keep track of how long they’ve been in Canada and say they’re halfway to being able to apply for Canadian citizenship.
“We already call it home even though we are permanent residents. This country is giving me the opportunity to live here and be part of the country. And to be a citizen here, I’ll take it with my heart.”