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U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling Striking Down the Defense of Marriage Act Has Profound Impact on Binational Same-Sex Couples Seeking Immigration Benefits

file1001282444781.jpgCongress first enacted the controversial Defense of Marriage Act, or “DOMA,” in 1996. The law stated, in part, that the federal government would only recognize marriages between a man and a woman. While state law governs most aspects of family law, DOMA has had a profound effect on a wide range of federal rights and benefits, including the right of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to petition on behalf of a spouse for an immigrant visa. Even if a marriage was legal at the state level, DOMA prevented the federal government from approving immigrant visa petitions for same-sex couples. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2013, however, struck down the relevant section of DOMA, opening the doors to as many as 25,000 binational same-sex couples who previously had no access to immigration benefits. For one couple in New York City, the impact was immediate and profound, stopping a deportation proceeding in its tracks.

Section 3 of DOMA changed the definitions of “marriage” and “spouse” in all federal statutes and regulations to specifically refer to opposite-sex marriage. Pub. L. No. 104-199 § 3, 110 Stat. 2419, codified at 1 U.S.C. § 7. This affected countless federal programs, including immigrant visa petitions for spouses of U.S. citizens. Federal immigration law does not limit the number of immigrant visas issued to U.S. citizens’ spouses annually, but DOMA excluded people who were legally married, under state law, to U.S. citizens of the same sex. This left some same-sex spouses facing deportation because of a lack of legal options.

The Supreme Court’s decision arose from an estate tax question. DOMA prevented the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage from claiming the federal estate tax exemption, so she sued to challenge DOMA’s constitutionality. The court ruled that Section 3 of DOMA violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment. United States v. Windsor, No.12-307. slip op. (U.S., Jun. 26, 2013). The impact was almost immediate in many cases, particularly for one couple in New York City.

The Windsor decision was expected at around 10:00 a.m., Eastern time, on June 26, 2013. That same morning, according to MSNBC, Steven Brooks had a hearing scheduled in a New York City immigration court. Brooks, a native of Colombia, had married Sean Brooks, a U.S. citizen, soon after the state of New York began recognizing same-sex marriages. Sean Brooks filed an immigrant visa petition for his husband in 2011, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denied it, citing the federal definition of “marriage” established by DOMA. Subsequent appeals were not successful, and Brooks found himself facing a final deportation hearing scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on June 26. News of the Windsor decision reached the court shortly before the scheduled hearing time. Judge Barbara Nelson adjourned the hearing upon reading the court’s decision. The couple’s visa petition now has a new chance at success.

The family-based immigration attorneys at Samuel C. Berger, P.C. help U.S. citizens and permanent residents who want to petition to bring a relative here from abroad, and immigrants who wish to adjust status to a permanent resident. To schedule a consultation to discuss your case with a member of our legal team, contact us today online or at (212) 380-8117.

More Blog Posts:

Same-Sex Marriage Gives Man a Reprieve from Deportation, but No Legal Rights, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, April 13, 2012
Violence Against Women Act, Which Includes Immigration Benefits, Up for Renewal in Congress, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, March 22, 2012
Immigration Officials Allow Man on Tourist Visa to Stay in New York to Care for His Ailing Partner, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, February 16, 2012
Photo credit: earl53 from morguefile.com.