Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA, Affirms Immigration Rights of Gay and Lesbian Couples

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Same sex marriageToday, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the case United States v. Windsor, striking down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, on the basis that it violated equal protection under the due process clause of the 5th Amendment. DOMA established an exclusively heterosexual definition of “marriage,” and denied same-sex couples any federal benefits, including immigration benefits. This is a historic day for gay and lesbian marriage rights, as DOMA disqualified same-sex couples from over a thousand federal benefits, and made same-sex couples in committed relationships second-class citizens in the eyes of the federal government.

In particular, the case involved whether Edith Windsor should have been forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal estate taxes, taxes that married persons do not have to pay, upon the death of her spouse that she had lawfully married in 2007. Because of DOMA, the Internal Revenue Service did not recognize their marriage and refused to refund the estate tax.

Although the case does not directly involve immigration law, the Supreme Court’s decision will profoundly affect the lives and rights of gay and lesbian bi-national couples. Under DOMA, lesbian and gay U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents were barred from obtaining permanent residency and any other immigration protections for their same-sex spouses.  As a result, gay and lesbian families have been torn apart, same-sex spouses of citizens have been deported, and thousands of U.S. citizens have been forced to choose between their life-partners and exile from the United States.

In the 5-4 ruling, Justice Kennedy stated that “DOMA…violates basic due process and equal protection principles…the avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages…[DOMA] is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has issued a statement applauding the decision striking down the discriminatory law. She vows to immediately begin implementing the decision to allow same sex spouses to obtain immigration benefits: “This discriminatory law denied thousands of legally married same-sex couples many important federal benefits, including immigration benefits. I am pleased the Court agreed with the Administration’s position that DOMA’s restrictions violate the Constitution. Working with our federal partners, including the Department of Justice, we will implement today’s decision so that all married couples will be treated equally and fairly in the administration of our immigration laws.”

The importance of this decision for the immigration rights of gay and lesbian couples cannot be understated. There are an estimated 28,500 bi-national same-sex couples in the United States. These couples will now be afforded many of the same immigration benefits and protections as all other couples under the U.S. immigration laws.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue

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