Supreme Court Decision Brings Gay Married Couples Hope For Green Cards

They wanted what many married couples want – a house, children, and a future to live out together.

Brian Willingham also wanted to help get his husband, Alfonso Garcia, a legal permanent resident visa.

But the federal Defense of Marriage Act held that married gay couples did not have equal standing with other married Americans, and so – citing DOMA – immigration officials categorically denied Willingham’s petition on behalf of Garcia.

Now, a week after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional, and that married gay couples should have equal rights as other married people, Willingham and Garcia, from Orinda, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area, are hopeful that their application will be approved.

“I’m expecting they’ll reopen our petition,” said Willingham, 39, a real estate agent. “I’m hoping we’ll get a letter from [immigration] next week.”

Garcia, 36, said the Supreme Court decision has given him more hope than he’s felt in many years.

“The decision brought happiness and sadness,” said Garcia, who came with his family unlawfully from Mexico when he was about 13 years old. “My marriage finally has validation, it’s recognized. For me it always had validation, but now in the eyes of the society, and for the government, my marriage has the same validation as everyone else.”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday the government would start reviewing applications for green cards and other immigration benefits for same-sex couples in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision.

A gay couple in Florida was the first in the nation who had their application for immigration benefits approved last Friday, after the Supreme Court ruling, their lawyer said. The approval means Traian Popov, a Bulgarian, here on a student visa, will be able to apply for a green card, and eventually U.S. citizenship.

About 32,000 same-sex couples in the United States have one partner who is an American citizen and another from a foreign country, said Gary Gates, a demographer at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School's Williams Institute. It isn't clear how many of those couples are married or how many might seek immigration benefits.

Among the binational same-sex couples, the countries most represented are Mexico (25 percent), Canada (8 percent), and the United Kingdom (6 percent), and one-fourth live in California. Among non-citizens in binational couples, 45 percent are Latino or Latina and 14 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, according to the Williams Institute website.

"Numerically, it is a very, very modest impact," Gates said. "But I think it's very important in the sense many of these stories are in fact couples who have been perhaps together for a while and have kids together and they lived for some time fearing they would have to separate."

Heterosexual Americans have long been able to sponsor husbands or wives for green cards to live in the United States. Same-sex couples were not able to obtain these immigration benefits, or a number of other federal benefits, because the 1996 law prohibited the U.S. government from recognizing their marriages — until this week's ruling.

The court's decision has been met with euphoria by binational same-sex couples who, like Garcia and Willingham, were unable to obtain green cards or other immigration benefits awarded to heterosexuals. In some cases, couples moved abroad to stay together, faced the prospect of deportation or hopped from visa to visa to remain in the country legally.

In the case of Garcia and Willingham, who married in New York in 2011, deportation has hung over their heads.

Both were traveling in a car two years ago, with Garcia at the wheel, when a police officer pulled them over. Everything came up clean, except Garcia’s undocumented status, which appeared when the police officer checked the immigration database under a federal program known as Secure Communities.

Immigration officials picked Garcia up, and he spent a few weeks in detention and was put in deportation proceedings.

An immigration judge in San Francisco has delayed deportation several times, taking into consideration that Willingham was petitioning for Garcia’s so-called green card, and then was appealing the rejection of the application.

Now the two, who have been together for about 12 years, are hoping that the DOMA decision will allow the petition to go through successfully, and will remove the deportation order.

“[Immigration] can come and pick me up at any time,” Garcia said. “We have talked about children, about buying a home, but because my case is still pending, we want everything to be set before we make plans.”

Garcia’s siblings and parents have legal status now – qualifying for it through family-based immigration rules. But Garcia fell through the cracks, stuck in a category – sibling-based residency petition – that has a huge backlog, especially for Mexicans.

Immigration officials, in fact, have not yet gotten around to his sister’s 1996 petition for Garcia.

“I have not yet celebrated the DOMA ruling,” Garcia said. “I was very happy when they announced it, we couldn’t believe it. We kept checking the news, we kept reading it over and over. I burst into tears, I was so happy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.