General information, such as that provided below, does not constitute individual legal advice nor is it meant to take the place of individualized legal advice; however, we do hope to answer some of the questions we hear most often. You should always consult with a qualified immigration attorney about the individual facts of your case before making any decisions about your particular situation.
What did the Supreme Court say about DOMA?
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) is unconstitutional. DOMA was a federal law that limited marriage to different-sex couples. Because immigration law is federal, DOMA prevented lawfully married lesbian and gay couples from obtaining lawful permanent residence (“green cards”) through marriage. Now that DOMA has been struck down, American citizens and lawful permanent residents can submit green card applications for their same-sex spouse.
What did the Supreme Court say in the Prop 8 case? And how does that affect immigration?
The Supreme Court dismissed the Proposition 8 case on a technical issue regarding standing. The Court held that the proponents of Prop 8, who had defended the ballot initiative in federal court, did not have the constitutional authority to file an appeal of the trial court’s decision. This ruling reinstated the decision of the trial court, which struck down Prop 8 as unconstitutional, and restored marriage equality to California.
Has the government issued any guidance on how it will treat immigration applications by same-sex couples?
Yes, on July 26, 2013, USCIS added a webpage entitled Same-Sex Marriages which answers many questions about how LGBT immigrant families’ applications will be treated post-DOMA. Also, in July 2013 the Board of Immigration Appeals issues a decision In Re Zeleniak which makes clear that with the end of DOMA, married same-sex couples are eligible for the whole range of immigration benefits and also clarifies that under immigration law, the agencies look to the law of the state or country where the marriage took place to determine the validity of the marriage.
Can LGBT couples get green cards now?
Yes, most families will now be able to obtain a green card.
With the end of DOMA, LGBT families will be treated the same under immigration law as different-sex immigrant families. Immigration law is complicated and there will still be barriers for some couples, but the systemic discrimination that prevented our families from receiving the same respect under the law as others has ended. Green card applications will no longer be denied solely because a couple is lesbian or gay.
Do we have to live in a marriage equality state to apply for a green card?
No. If you have a marriage that is valid in the state or country where you were married – regardless of where you live – that marriage makes you eligible to apply for a green card.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) looks to see whether you entered into a valid marriage in the state or country where you married. While some federal benefits may only be available to married couples if you live in a state which recognizes your marriage, fortunately, this is not the case for immigration benefits.
We married in Canada. Do marriages from outside the U.S. count?
Yes. As long as the marriage was validly entered into, it is sufficient for immigration purposes. In fact, Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, married her wife in Canada.
Does a civil union or domestic partnership count?
We have not seen any guidance on this issue from USCIS, but the Department of State FAQs say, “At this time, only a relationship legally considered to be a marriage in the jurisdiction where it took place establishes eligibility as a spouse for immigration purposes.” If it is possible for you and your partner to marry, you may be better off marrying because you could then feel more secure that your relationship will be recognized for immigration purposes without having to wait for further guidance.
My partner can’t get a visa to get to the United States, and we can’t marry in his/her country. What are our options?
U.S. citizens can file fiancé/e visa applications for committed partners. This application requires the couple to demonstrate that they have a “bona fide” relationship. When the visa is granted, the couple is required to marry within 90 days of the foreign partner’s entry into the US. Once married, the couple can file the marriage-based application from within the United States.
For families that can travel to another country that has marriage equality, another option would be to marry there and then have the U.S. citizen sponsor the foreign national spouse for a green card through consular processing in his/her home country.
We live in exile. How soon can we come home?
For couples in exile together, the U.S. citizen could file for a fiancé/e visa or the couple can marry and the foreign spouse can consular process. It will take several months before a visa is actually issued, but processing times vary by consulate. Therefore, we cannot say exactly how long it will take before families are able to return to the United States. Keep in mind that once a foreign national becomes a green card holder, s/he must live primarily in the U.S. If you are not ready to move home, it may be too soon to apply.
Once I apply to sponsor my spouse, how long will we have to wait until s/he can work?
For couples who live in the United States together, it is common to file an application for work authorization along with the application for lawful permanent residence. Processing times vary throughout the U.S., but generally employment authorization documents (EADs) are issued within 90 days, and marriage-based interviews are generally scheduled within 9 months after filing.
My partner is here on a work visa. Is a marriage-based visa better?
It depends. In general, marriage-based petitions are adjudicated quicker than many other applications for lawful permanent residence. Employment-based petitions are complex, with most categories requiring the employer to prove that there are no U.S. workers able, willing, and qualified to fill the position. There is also an annual cap on the number of employment-based green cards that can be issued, which has created years-long backlogs in several employment-based categories. Since there is no limit to the number of green cards that can be issued to the spouses of U.S. citizens, a marriage-based petition may result in a green card much more quickly. However, in a marriage-based case, the American spouse has to file an affidavit of support proving that he or she can maintain the applicant at above 125% of the poverty level. So, in some cases, it may make sense to pursue lawful permanent residence through an employer if that’s an option. Regardless of whether a foreign national obtains a green card through a marriage-based petition or through a different avenue (like an employer), he or she can apply to become a citizen after three years (rather than five) if married to an American citizen.
I am undocumented, my partner is American. Can we apply?
It depends. Under U.S. immigration law, the general rule is that a person who is in the U.S. without lawful status cannot change from within the U.S. from being here unlawfully to being here lawfully. One significant exception to this rule is that the spouse of a U.S. citizen can apply for a green card from within the U.S. (to “adjust status”) as long as he or she entered the U.S. through a valid port of entry, in other words, following inspection by a U.S. official.
For those undocumented individuals who entered the U.S. without inspection (“EWI”), the applicant must return to his or her home country to apply. In the past, this was unworkable for most families, because once the applicant left the country he or she was barred from returning for many years. There is now a waiver available which can minimize the length and uncertainty of that wait.
We have children. How will this affect them?
Generally, when a U.S. citizen files an application for lawful permanent residence for a spouse, he or she can also file for the spouse’s children as “step-children.” Even if you don’t see your children as “step-children,” if the foreign spouse is the biological parent of the children, filing a step-child petition for lawful permanent residence will probably provide the most efficient way to obtain their green cards. You and your partner must have married before the child turned 18, and the child must currently be under 21 and unmarried in order to get a green card at the same time as the parent’s marriage-based green card.
What about the immigration reform bill? Do we need to be in it now?
As long as USCIS and the Department of State interpret the Supreme Court decision as they should, we should not need further legislative action to provide relief to married lesbian and gay couples.
Immigration reform is still important for LGBT people, however. There are critical protections in the bill for asylum seekers, alternatives to detention for LGBT detainees, and procedural protections for those who are detained, including limiting the use of solitary confinement for LGBT detainees. The bill also provides a pathway to citizenship for those who are in the U.S. without lawful status, at least a quarter-million of whom are LGBT. The bill further provides an accelerated path to citizenship for DREAMers, young people who came to the US as minors, grew up as Americans, and whose movement for change has been led by many brave LGBT people.
Do we need a lawyer? Do we need a lawyer that specializes in LGBT issues?
It’s always a good idea to have a lawyer when applying for an immigration benefit and spousal petitions can be very complicated. Immigration Equality maintains a referral list of private immigration attorneys who have an understanding of LGBT issues. To request an attorney referral from Immigration Equality, please fill out the Contact Us form.
Immigration law is very complicated. While many people successfully file marriage-based applications for lawful permanent residence without a lawyer, we generally recommend that people should seek out representation by qualified counsel.
Will Immigration Equality be our lawyer?
With an estimated 36,000 same-sex binational couples living in the United States and many more separated or living in exile abroad, Immigration Equality’s legal team cannot personally represent all the families who will be applying in the days and months ahead.
We have a referral list for LGBT-friendly private immigration attorneys which we are happy to share. We are continuing to provide technical support, training, and mentoring for these attorneys and will advocate with the relevant agencies if we hear of problems with applications after the DOMA decision. We are working closely with attorneys on our referral list to ensure they have all the information necessary to help LGBT couples. Immigration Equality maintains a referral list of private immigration attorneys whom we have trained on these issues, and we are collaborating with the American Immigration Lawyers Association to make those training materials available to all reputable practitioners.
What can we do today to start preparing for our application? What kind of things do we need to gather?
It is important that you and your partner be legally married. As with any marriage-based petition for lawful permanent residence, you will need to prove to USCIS that your marriage is “bona fide,” that is that you married for love and not merely to get an immigration benefit. Thus, USCIS will look for proof that your relationship is real, including proof that you: live together; share finances; hold each other out as a couple; spend holidays together, in some cases raise children together, etc. It will be helpful to begin to put this type of evidence together. For more information about the procedural requirements of filing for the green card please, see our FAQ on adjustment of status.