DOMA decision to end exile of gay couples abroad

Updated
Michael Knaapen (L) and his husband John Becker, both of Wisconsin, react to the 5-4 ruling striking down as unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act at...
Michael Knaapen (L) and his husband John Becker, both of Wisconsin, react to the 5-4 ruling striking down as unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act at...
James Lawler Duggan/Reuters

One of the biggest implications of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act relates to immigration.

While DOMA was in effect, gay Americans legally married to a foreign national had no way to sponsor them for a spouse visa to live in the United States because the federal government refused to recognize their union. The result was that many couples were forced to either live in exile abroad or risk living illegally in the United States under threat of deportation. Among those affected were Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist behind the recent NSA story, who lives in Brazil with his husband, and former Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe, who recently testified before a Senate committee about his Panamanian fiance’s difficulty securing a visa.

All that’s a thing of the past now.

“Lesbian and gay couples for the first time in our country’s history are eligible to apply for a green card to keep their families together,” Steve Ralls, a spokesman for LGBT advocacy group Immigration Equality, told msnbc. He said his group would begin submitting green card applications within days for couples who have been barred by DOMA’s restrictions up until now.

Moments earlier, Ralls had telephoned one such couple, Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda, to congratulate them on the news. The two met as college students in 1980 and married in 2011 in Vermont, but when Ueda’s student visa ran out after many years of post-graduate education they faced the threat of imminent separation. They became plaintiffs in a separate court challenge to DOMA and the Obama administration granted Ueda a temporary stay while the courts resolved the issue.

“Today was the first time they could now make plans for their future,” Ralls said. “They were on vacation in Cape Cod when I reached them and very emotional when they heard the news.”

Ueda and Herbert are hardly an unusual case: a study this year by the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated that some 637,000 legal immigrants and 267,000 undocumented immigrants living in America identify as LGBT. For gay couples abroad who want to move to America, they’ll be able to acquire the same K1 fiance visa used by straight couples, get married in any state where the practice is legal, and then apply for a green card to stay permanently.

The DOMA decision heads off a difficult fight in Congress, where Republican supporters of immigration reform had successfully pushed back against attempts in the Senate to grant visas to gay couples as part of the bill being debated this week. One of the proposals under consideration would have gone slightly farther in its effects than the DOMA decision by allowing gay partners to apply for green cards, since many live in countries where marriage is still illegal.

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DOMA decision to end exile of gay couples abroad

Updated