SAN DIEGO – If you are an immigrant or prospective immigrant seeking a United States green card, one way to get it would be to marry a U.S. citizen. But until now, same-sex couples were out of luck, because under the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, the federal government recognized only heterosexual marriages.
Voting 5-4, the Supreme Court invalidated a central provision of that law, meaning more than 1,000 federal benefits will now become available to married same-sex couples.
Ginger Jacobs, an immigration lawyer in San Diego, said this move brings relief to many of her clients who are gay bi-national couples.
"For the first time, the U.S. citizen will be able to petition for his or her spouse to be able to immigrate legally to the United States," she said.
Statistics indicate there are up to 40,000 same-sex bi-national couples in the U.S. They faced separation because although one partner is a citizen, the other is either undocumented or on a temporary visa set to expire.
Because of DOMA, green cards have been out reach even for those couples that have married or wanted to in one of the dozen states where gay marriage is legal. That will change after Wednesday's ruling.
Rachel Tiven, director of the nonprofit Immigration Equality, which advocates for immigration rights for LGBT couples, said same-sex partners were ready for the Supreme Court's decision.
"We have couples that have green card applications that they have prepared already — that are literally in an envelope at their front door," Tiven said. "Some of those couples called me today to say, I'm taking it to the post office!"
Tiven said there should be no delays before the government begins approving green card applications from same-sex spouses, because they should be treated just the way applications from heterosexual couples have always been.
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who oversees the nation's immigration service, said she was pleased with the court's decision. She said she'll begin implementing it so that "all married couples will be treated equally and fairly in the administration of our immigration laws."
The end of DOMA will also affect the ongoing debate over immigration reform on Capitol Hill.
In recent weeks, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has tried to include a provision in the proposed reform bill that would grant same-sex couples immigration rights.
Many Republicans, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, strongly opposed that.
"If this bill includes anything that gives gay couples immigration rights and so forth, I'm done," Rubio said.
But the DOMA ruling now makes that provision unnecessary, and that's enough for many immigrants who've hinged their hopes on the legal challenge to DOMA, like Jesus Rodriguez.
Rodriguez is an undocumented immigrant. He's been with his partner William Wood, a U.S. citizen, for four years. Last year, Rodriguez was detained for driving without a license and placed in deportation proceedings. As his case worked its way through court, he and Wood traveled to Washington D.C. and got married.
They hoped that if they could postpone the deportation long enough for DOMA to be overturned, Wood might be able to petition for Rodriguez's green card. The judge in his case agreed to stay his deportation until DOMA's fate was decided.
"It's very liberating," Rodriguez sighed during a recent phone call. "Where I can actually focus on going back to school and work. And I know I can continue to live with him."
Tiven said thousands of people found similar relief Wednesday.
"From 1952 onward, LGBT people were barred from entering the United States. We were told that because we were gay, we were not good enough to be Americans. That was the case for individuals until 1990, and it was the case for couples until today," she said.