Legal Challenges Faced by Same-Sex Binational Couples

Advocates Challenge Barriers Gay and Lesbian Couples Face Seeking Legal Residency

New York, February 27, 2013—Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and (LGBT) and HIV-positive immigrants are aggressively pursuing reform in each branch of the federal government to win equality, said Tom Plummer, staff attorney for the national advocacy organization Immigration Equality, in a Columbia Law School discussion of “Legal Challenges Faced by Same-Sex Binational Couples.”

Plummer talked to students about his work representing LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants struggling to legally remain in the United States. Because the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defines marriage as the legal union between one man and one woman, U.S. citizens cannot sponsor same-sex foreign spouses for immigration benefits. According to Immigration Equality, the law discriminates against some thirty-six thousand same-sex binational families.
“U.S. immigration law is based on the concept of reuniting families,” Plummer said. “DOMA forces couples apart, it forces families into exile, and forces immigrants in same-sex binational couples out of status and into the shadows.”
Two of Immigration Equality’s clients—Columbia Ph.D. candidate Philip Rodenbough, an American citizen, and husband Kouassi Akou, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast—discussed the challenging path for same-sex binational couples under current law.
“Even though we were married, I couldn’t sponsor him for a green card,” Rodenbough said.
Plummer said advocates are working to change the law in a three-pronged effort targeting each branch of the federal government. Seeking “interim relief,” Immigration Equality has worked directly with the White House to stop the removal of foreign nationals through the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and for those in deportation proceedings. The group has also been able to secure interim relief for other families through deferred action. The group is looking to Congress and the courts for more permanent policy changes.
In addition to advocating for the repeal of DOMA, the organization supports the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), bipartisan legislation that would permit U.S. citizens to sponsor “permanent partners” of the same sex for legal residency. Immigration Equality wants UAFA to be part of the immigration reform package on the agenda in Washington. While the bipartisan Senate working group did not mention UAFA in its initial proposal, proposals from the White House and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have, so Plummer expressed hope that UAFA would be part of an eventual deal.
In the courts, advocates are challenging the constitutionality of DOMA. Immigration Equality has filed a case on behalf of five same-sex binational couples challenging the law. Plummer said he was cautiously hopeful that the Supreme Court would strike down DOMA in United States v. Windsor, a case on the court’s March calendar. The Windsor case does not involve immigration, but he believes that an end to DOMA would reverberate across the legal landscape and quickly allow lesbian and gay Americans to sponsor foreign spouses.
“There is a growing consensus among the federal judiciary that this discriminatory law is unconstitutional,” Plummer said, “but the Windsor case does not mean separate efforts should not move forward.”
The event was organized by the Columbia Outlaws, the Law School’s LGBTQ student organization, and co-sponsored by the Society for Immigrant & Refugee Rights and Law & Culture. Olena Ripnick ’14, a board member of the Outlaws who interned at Immigration Equality, helped organize the discussion.
"We are so thrilled that Tom, Philip and Kouassi were able to come speak at Columbia Law School,” Ripnick said. “Immigration equality is at the forefront working on behalf of LGBTQ immigrants for LGBTQ-inclusive immigration reform, and towards a world where LGBTQ families are treated equally.”