A California professor was one of the first binational couples to have their marriage recognized by federal immigration officials. Although Tom Knutson and his partner Phan Datthuyawat have been together for more than 20 years and got married in 2008, USCIS’s approval recent approval to grant Datthuyawat his green card gave the marriage a whole new meaning.
Since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June, an estimated 36,000 same-sex couples nationwide have filed petitions for their partners to receive green cards as foreign-born spouses of U.S. citizens.
According to Laura Lichter, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, many of the first cases to receive USCIS approval are those in which time is especially of the essence, like Knutson and Datthuyawat. Knutson, 70, is currently battling pancreatic cancer, and Datthuyawat, 49, has not seen his 84-year-old mother in Thailand for more than a decade because he hasn’t been able to leave the country and return without a green card.
“The USCIS has really worked hard to get its guidelines out there after DOMA, and the first cases to get approved were really those under the gun facing deportation,” said Lichter.
Many binational same-sex couples live with the constant fear of deportation, including Knutson and Datthuyawat. According to an article in the Sacramento Bee, Knutson said that, for more than a decade, he lived in fear “that at midnight, there’d be a knock on the door and they’d be coming to take Phan away.”
Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, the Department of Homeland Security instructed the USCIS to review immigration visa petitions filed on behalf of legally married same-sex spouses in the same manner as those filed on behalf of opposite sex spouses. Nonetheless, it can take several months for a couple to get an interview with the immigration service after filing an application for a marriage-based green card or a change in status.
The USCIS has said it is now processing binational same-sex marriages the same way as opposite-sex unions and does not differentiate by orientation, but length of marriage still remains a factor in obtaining a green card. Couples married less than two years are subject to more scrutiny – a factor that can work against same-sex couples since many states have only recently begun to allow same-sex marriage and because the couple may have been reluctant to openly publicize their relationship until recently.