Church marries young couple to settle immigration issue

Felix Yu can remain in America instead of going back to Hong Kong after wedding at Holy Ghost

By Dan McWilliams

An Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rule on foreign students in the country nearly forced a Holy Ghost parishioner to return to Hong Kong, separating him from his fiancée, but the Catholic Church intervened by marrying the young couple so that the groom could remain in America.

Felix Yu, a Middle Tennessee State University student on a visa from Hong Kong, and Genevieve Hunt were originally scheduled to be married Dec. 19, but on July 6 the U.S. government announced that students who because of COVID-19 are scheduled for only online classes would not be able to stay in the United States. Mr. Yu would have to return to Hong Kong and apply for a change in status to return to the United States.

Tense relations between the United States and China as well as the political situation in Hong Kong likely would have made it difficult for Mr. Yu to return to America.

“Governments should not be using good people as pawns in their political game,” posted Bob Hunt, the bride’s father, on Facebook.

Mr. Yu and Miss Hunt consulted an immigration attorney, who recommended they get married sooner rather than later, Mr. Hunt posted. That way, Mr. Yu would be allowed to stay in the United States while he applies for his green card rather than having to return to Hong Kong to do so.

Father Bill McNeeley, pastor of Holy Ghost Parish, agreed to speed up the marriage process, and a wedding date was set for July 23. But in the meantime, President Trump—with his government facing eight federal lawsuits and opposition from hundreds of universities—rescinded the ICE policy. The wedding, however, proceeded as planned. After consultation with the immigration attorney, the couple was urged to “get married sooner rather than later, given the unpredictable nature of this administration’s immigration policy,” Mr. Hunt posted.

Mr. Yu explained his dilemma.

“We have been planning our December wedding since November 2019; however, we got bad news on July 6 from the government saying all F1 international students will have to take in-person classes for fall semester 2020,” he said. “My school, MTSU, does not offer any in-person classes for my major, information systems, so I would have to either change my major or transfer to another school. Neither option would work for me since I am a graduate student, because changing to another program  needs to get all the approvals from the other departments, and there would be a high chance of my not being accepted because I had never taken any classes related to those majors, and most of the schools had passed their deadline for fall-semester acceptance, so changing school would never work out.

“Since we had no option other than going back to my country, Hong Kong, we would have to leave within a month. But because of the uncertain situation in Hong Kong and the U.S. embassy being closed due to COVID-19, I basically could not come back anytime soon. That means I would have to leave my love for at least six months and postpone the wedding.”

That’s when Father McNeeley, who leads the North Knoxville parish, stepped in.

“Felix and Genevieve came to me earlier this year to prepare a wedding date for the month of December,” the pastor said. “We started the premarital inventory and got paperwork on baptisms and sacraments. They completed almost everything, including the marriage-preparation retreat.

Then several weeks ago the Trump administration announced the interpretation that anyone studying online would have to return to their home since you don’t have to be in the United States to study online. Felix and Genevieve asked me what they should do, and I told them I would be willing to move up the wedding date.

“About the time they consulted an immigration attorney, the administration reversed the ruling. The attorney said to go ahead with the wedding, for if the administration changes, it’s fine again. Felix and Genevieve are a lovely couple, and I was honored to officiate at their wedding.”

The wedding was small and private, attended only by the bride’s parents, Bob and Margaret Hunt; the bride’s younger sister, Felicity; the maid of honor and best man; and a handful of others, including family of Father McNeeley. Mr. Yu’s family watched the ceremony live via cellphone.

The new Mrs. Yu, Genevieve, said that “when we first found out about it, my first thought was feeling very sad that Felix would be taken away from me and his safety, because of all the craziness happening in Hong Kong.

“But when we found the option to get married sooner, I felt more relieved,” she said. “Because I knew I wanted Felix to be in my life forever and that Felix is the only man that I love, and I haven’t loved anyone as deep. I know this is all God’s plan. When we were officially married, I was happy and felt that we were going to be safe and that God had us safely in his arms. My trust in God has become stronger from the experience.”

The couple had planned to still have a December ceremony, which would be a renewal of vows, but because of COVID are postponing the event until next winter.

The bride’s mother, Mrs. Hunt, said that “Felix’s situation was certainly scary for him because he really had no choice whether his classes would be online or not due to COVID, so the announcement from ICE was frustrating at the time.

“ICE pretty quickly reversed their decision, so it’s not really an issue anymore. I would venture to guess that the vast majority of people here on student visas were here to work hard and eventually find gainful employment to support themselves and their families, so I’m not sure why they were put in danger of having to return to their home countries. These aren’t the people who are causing trouble. That can’t be said for many native-born citizens of this country.”

Mrs. Hunt said she was “glad Felix and Genevieve were able to go ahead and get married and begin their lives together, and I’m proud of their efforts to work through this situation. It’s challenging enough to be newlyweds, so I’m glad they used this experience as something to unite them and grow together as a couple. As things stand now, Felix has submitted all the necessary information so that he can apply for a green card, and he’ll hopefully hear something by the end of this year or early next year.”

Mr. Hunt, who also is a columnist for The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper and a candidate for the Diocese of Knoxville’s permanent diaconate, said the family not only thought the new ICE rule was “unfair, since it’s hardly the fault of the foreign students that the world had been hit by a pandemic, but it would require that Genevieve and Felix suffer a prolonged separation. More than that, since Felix is from Hong Kong, we were concerned that he would not be able to return by the December wedding date or, really, any time soon if at all.

“The Communist Party in China had been cracking down on civil liberties in Hong Kong for months, inspiring a series of protests by citizens. Relations between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Hong Kong were tense and, occasionally, explosive. As well, because of the trade wars between the U.S. and China, the origins of the coronavirus in China, and the attacks on civil liberties against the people of Hong Kong by the CCP, relations between the U.S. and China were especially strained. In fact, there was a ban on travel from China to the U.S. There were ample reasons to believe that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Felix to return to Knoxville, as well as many reasons to conclude that Hong Kong was not the best place to be right now.”

Mr. Hunt received prayers and advice on the situation from friends on Facebook.

“Friends would PM (private message) me and sometimes even call if they had been in a similar situation with immigration services,” he said. “It became quickly obvious that Felix and Genevieve would need the services of an immigration attorney, and friends recommended names of attorneys they knew or whose services they had employed. Happily, Felix had already worked with such an attorney in New Jersey.  Felix contacted him, and they were able to set up an online appointment after only a couple of days. The recommendation from the immigration attorney was that Genevieve and Felix get married as soon as possible. That way, rather than having to return to Hong  Kong and begin the process of applying for a green card from there, Felix would be able to remain in the United States and initiate the process here,” he said.

Because of the short notice and coronavirus restrictions, the wedding would be a small one. Two bridesmaids and Mr. Yu’s family would not be able to attend.

“However, those who were in Knoxville readily dedicated themselves to the work of making this happen,” Mr. Hunt said. “Genevieve’s bridesmaids who were in town chipped in and purchased a beautiful wedding dress for her. It was silver and sparkly and on sale! She loved it, and she looked gorgeous in it. The photographer opened her calendar for them. Felix’s friend from college arranged for a cake. Most importantly, Father Bill McNeeley put the process for being married in the Church in hyper drive, so all the necessary paperwork and approvals were made ready. A date was set for Thursday, July 23.

“There is an old Chinese tradition that the groom’s family chooses the date for the wedding, based on dates that are good luck or bad luck for getting married. We had thought about Saturday, July 25, for the wedding, but that was a bad luck day. So, July 23 it would be.”

The wedding date “was a beautiful summer day,” Mr. Hunt said.

“Genevieve was stunning in hersilver, sparkly wedding dress,” he said. “Her hair and that of her maid of honor was dolled up with lavender, her favorite flower, and they carried lavender bouquets. Felix looked handsome in his tuxedo, and his best man looked sharp and charmed all the ladies. I felt so honored to escort my wonderful young lady down the aisle to the young man awaiting her at the altar.

“Felix is a good man. He is a man of great faith, of strong ambition, and he loves my little girl. The wedding itself was lovely. Genevieve’s mother, Margaret, and I were honored to proclaim the first and second readings. Father McNeeley preached well on the meaning and solemnity of the sacrament of matrimony. Then, the two exchanged vows, committing themselves before God and the Church that they would choose love for each other for the rest of their lives. I learned afterward that Felix’s friend had arranged for his family to FaceTime the wedding from Hong Kong, so they were able to watch the whole thing and speak with us all afterward,” he added. Mr. Hunt said he “couldn’t help but beam with pride.”

“What a joy to be there to watch these young people take such a momentous step,” he said. “My daughter and her fiancé had faced an enormously stressful situation and handled it with maturity and confidence that God would carry them through this and make it good by His grace. We had all responded with prayer and faith.

“Somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew it would work out. God is good, and His grace can manage. We simply need to be open to that grace and respond as best we can when we discern His will moving in a particular direction. I was overjoyed to learn that my daughter and her young man knew this and were able to act on it. It will carry them through the many travails of life in this fast-paced and often unpredictable age.”

Mr. Yu is a graduate student at MTSU studying for a master of science in information systems. He obtained a bachelor of science in business administration in 2018. Since ICE withdrew its decision, Mr. Yu can stay in the United States while studying. The visa situation is settled.

“I am in the process of applying for the green card,” he said. “Even after I get the green card, it is going to be a long process to obtain U.S. citizenship, but I will do it in the future.”

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