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

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. We will continue to monitor developments in the law and provide guidance on immigration options for LGBT families.

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About this Author

Douglas Hauer, Immigration Attorney, Mintz Levin Law Firm
Member

Douglas is a Member in the firm's Immigration Practice and also practices in the Israel Business Group. His practice focuses on business immigration law, related government investigations, family-based green card sponsorship processes, EB-5 investor visa filings, and corporate immigration policy development.

He has represented multinational corporations in the financial services, technology, management consulting, hedge fund, specialty chemicals, insurance, defense, and engineering sectors. He has in-depth experience counseling corporate clients on the immigration...

617-348-3044
Susan J. Cohen, Immigration Attorney, Mintz Levin Law Firm
Member and Chairperson of the Immigration Section

Susan is the founder and Chair of the firm’s Immigration Practice, which is composed of 10 attorneys and 15 immigration specialists and assistants who service the immigration needs both of Mintz Levin’s existing corporate and individual clients, and of new clients who choose the firm precisely for its knowledge in the field of immigration and nationality law. Mintz Levin also is committed to handling political asylum cases, most of which are taken on a pro bono basis.

Susan is actively involved in the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and has chaired and co...

617-348-4468