What Windsor Means for Same-Sex Married Couples Seeking U.S. Immigration Benefits

by Mintz Levin - Immigration Law
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On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) is unconstitutional. This Section of DOMA prohibited the U.S. government from conferring any federal benefits to same-sex couples who were married in any jurisdiction in the world.

What does the Windsor decision mean for same-sex couples seeking immigration benefits?

On the immigration front, DOMA has been the main obstacle prohibiting married same-sex couples from accessing any immigration benefits that would otherwise flow to a spouse. For example, a U.S. citizen may sponsor a spouse who is a foreign national for permanent residence, and that foreign national spouse is considered an “immediate relative” of a U.S. citizen and exempt from annual numerical limitations on immigrants. Before Windsor, this option of “immediate relative” sponsorship did not exist for same-sex couples. Same-sex spouses also were not able to qualify for derivative nonimmigrant visas, or to qualify as dependents in an employment-based immigrant visa or adjustment of status process. Windsor has permanently shifted this landscape, with same-sex married couples being recognized as married and therefore able to access immigration benefits, provided they can demonstrate eligibility under the law for the specific benefits sought.

What marriages are valid under Windsor?

Generally, if a couple’s marriage is valid where it is performed, it is valid for purposes of immigration law. If you and your foreign national spouse were married in one of the 12 U.S. states that recognize same-sex marriage or in a foreign country that recognizes same-sex marriage, such as Canada, your green card sponsorship and application process should be treated exactly like the application of a different-sex couple. In fact, Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in Windsor, married her wife in Canada. To determine the validity of the marriage, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) focuses on the place where the marriage took place, not the location where one or both spouses live. This same principle is applied by other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security as well as at U.S. Embassies and Consulates.

Recent Guidance from the Federal Government

We expect government agencies to implement the Windsor decision swiftly. This means that immediately we will see changes at the various federal agencies that process applications for immigration benefits and visas. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano issued a statement following the Court’s decision. She directed USCIS “to review immigration visa petitions filed on behalf of a same-sex spouse in the same manner as those filed on behalf of an opposite-sex spouse.” Recent Department of Homeland Security guidance is now clear that family-based immigrant visas will no longer “be automatically denied as a result of the same-sex nature of your marriage.” Following the Court’s decision, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the Department of State (DOS) will work with the Department of Justice and other agencies “to review all relevant statues as well as benefits administered” by DOS. We expect to see guidance from U.S. Consulates in the coming weeks.

Conclusion

Same-sex couples who are married now have equal access to immigration benefits. The scope of the Windsor decision extends to same-sex spouses of individuals pursuing employment-based immigration benefits, such as green card and nonimmigrant visa sponsorship. If you are a same-sex couple that may benefit from the Windsor decision, please contact an attorney within Mintz Levin’s Immigration Practice to discuss your options. We will continue to monitor developments in the law and provide guidance on immigration options for LGBT families.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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