After a 13-year battle with the U.S. government, Tom Roche can finally bring his Vietnamese wife to America.
For more than a decade, the U.S. State Department has considered Roche's relationship a "sham" to skirt immigration laws and refused to grant a fiancee or spousal visa.
That changed Wednesday at the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City when officials approved the couple's latest visa application, their fourth attempt at a life together here.
"The look on her face was priceless," Roche recalled recently at his auto sales lot in South Wilkes-Barre a day after returning home from Vietnam. "You can't believe how wonderful we feel, especially after fighting them for, literally, 13 years."
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Roche, 64, met his wife, Tran Do Thuy Hanh, 46, online through a mutual friend in 2004. Their relationship since then has mostly been online, though he has visited Vietnam to see her seven times, including for their 2009 marriage.
He's the first to admit the courtship has been unconventional.
"It's weird. I don't dispute it. But it happens," Roche said.
Hanh comes from an impoverished family in Vung Tau, a coastal resort city in southern Vietnam. When Roche met her, she was a local seamstress, but now she runs a small coffee shop there.
Following the visa approval, she's looking to move to the United States as soon as possible.
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They plan to renew their vows in Naples, Florida, where Roche also has a home. They then hope to have a reception in Wilkes-Barre, too.
"I'd like to also have a small reception here — no gifts, just a meet-the-wife party," Roche said. "Most of my lifelong friends are here. They know the story."
The couple's visa application had previously been declined multiple times. After the third rejection, officials at the U.S. Consulate told Roche his case was permanently closed.
"The facts as ascertained by consular officers would convince a reasonable person that the claimed relationship is a sham entered into solely for immigration purposes and to evade immigration laws," the U.S. Consulate wrote in a denial letter.
Roche was heartbroken.
"How could they say my relationship was a fraud? They told me 'case closed.' But it's not my personality to give up. Quite honestly, I've been a pest since then," Roche said.
Roche said he was in constant contact with and obtained assistance from the staffs of U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
He also talked about his case to The Citizens Voice for a February 2012 story.
"Somehow the case got reopened," Roche said.
Roche's latest application contained hundreds of pages to document the relationship, which included cards, letters, emails, phone records and more detailing their daily communication. Roche said he thinks the Voice's full-page story in 2012 was a big influence in the visa approval.
"It was funny. When they brought the paperwork back to tell us the visa was approved, The Citizens Voice was on top," Roche said.
Roche still runs the auto sales shop his father founded in 1949 on Wyoming Street in Wilkes-Barre. He moved it to the intersection of North and North Main streets in 1984. He later moved it to its current location at 721 S. Franklin St., near Schiel's Market.
He had been a social studies teacher at Meyers High School until he quit to take over the business following a death in the family.
Never married before, Roche said he felt like he met his soul mate in 2004 when he was introduced to Hanh. Their love grew despite a language barrier and being separated by thousands of miles. They've been learning each other's languages and have no problem communicating.
Over the years, Roche has sent money, paid for her mother's hospital bills, helped the family rebuild after two floods and bought Hanh a motorcycle to get around in Vietnam. They got engaged during a 2007 visit and applied for a fiancee visa, which was denied. After they got married, they twice were denied for a spousal visa.
Finally, after 13 years and a fourth try, a visa for Roche's wife was approved. They hope to live happily ever after in America.
"I am elated," Roche said. "I can't believe after all this, my efforts finally bore fruit. I just want her to be happy."