U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called on the federal government Monday to reopen U.S. citizenship petitions that have been denied under the Defense of Marriage Act.
The Supreme Court struck down a key portion of DOMA on June 27, but with the ruling still fresh many questions remain about how it will affect bi-national couples seeking U.S. citizenship.
Blumenthal joined several same-sex couples and their family members at the state Capitol Monday and urged U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to begin re-considering petitions that were previously denied due to DOMA in order to spare binational couples the cost and time of re-applying.
“Reopening these petitions makes sense as a matter of law, and simple humanitarian justice and will spare these couples the legal limbo that now embroils them,” Blumenthal said.
Tom Plummer, a staff attorney with Immigration Equality, said application fees for a spousal green card top $1,400, and even heterosexual couples are encouraged to hire an attorney for the “complex” process. He said the national average in legal fees per application is about $2,500.
Connecticut is one of 13 localities — 12 states and the District of Columbia — that recognize same-sex marriages. But, because immigration is handled on the federal level, DOMA has traditionally kept legally married gay couples from using spousal petitions for U.S. citizenship.
Without legislative action, it is largely up to President Obama’s administration to decide how to act.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano issued a statement July 1 confirming that, under Obama’s guidance, she directed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services 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.”
Immigration Equality Policy Director Julie Kruse said Monday that the USCIS has reopened a few denial cases and the response from the Obama administration has been “promising.”
“We have seen green cards granted . . . in pretty much lightening speed, in a matter of days. We have seen former cases reopened. Like Sen. Blumenthal, we’ll keep a watch to ensure that continues to happen,” Kruse said.
Kruse said same-sex couples that have been seeking spousal-based green cards do not have to start at square one. She said just two and a half weeks after the DOMA ruling, applications that were already being processed were granted in response.
But Blumenthal said for couples like Sam Conlon and Gary Wanderlingh of New Fairfield, the process has been anything but easy or “lightening speed.” Conlon and Wanderlingh were married in Connecticut, but Conlon — a British national — had his green card application denied twice.
The couple applied for a spousal petition while DOMA was still under consideration by the Supreme Court, but were denied despite a petition spearheaded by Blumenthal to comply until after the DOMA ruling. When they re-applied again after the DOMA ruling, the petition was denied again.
“It’s extremely disheartening to hear of cases being reopened when those cases were denied even prior to DOMA . . . while we applied after and were entitled to those benefits pending the Supreme Court ruling,” Wanderlingh said. “There has been no response on our case.”
Wanderlingh added that because the couple is unsure of the fate of Conlon’s green card, planning for the future is “impossible.”
“What Sam and I can do tomorrow or over the next month and a half, we have no idea,” Wanderlingh said.
Kelli Ryan and Lucy Truman of Newtown are one of five couples that sued the federal government when their green card application for Truman — also a British national — was denied under DOMA, and Immigration Equality took on the couple’s case pro-bono.
Their suit was unsuccessful, and Truman’s visa was three days from its expiration date when the DOMA ruling was handed down in June.
“When we were waiting for the Supreme Court decision, we had our application ready,” Ryan said. “On the day of the decision, it was sent out.”
Though their application is still pending, Truman is permitted to remain in the U.S.
“We’ve lived with this a long time,” Truman said. “It was very difficult to sort of plan two lives.”
Gudrun Scheffler, a German national, was forced to leave the U.S. when her work visa expired in August 2012 after working as a German teacher in the Cheshire public school system for seven years. Scheffler has been living apart from her American partner, Francesca Martin, since December and attended Monday’s press conference under a visitor’s visa.
“My clock was ticking last year,” Scheffler said. “We had already decided our neighbor to the north would be a very suitable place for us to live and we planned to relocate to Canada.”
Scheffler has been in the process of re-certifying to teach in Canada, but said she is now applying for a green card so she can return to America.
Blumenthal said he wants the USCIS’s parent department, the Department of Homeland Security, to answer some some of the questions of binational couples whose status is uncertain.
“The president has committed to treat all same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples married in the states, as in Connecticut, where they are legally and validly married,” he said. “Yet there is no policy on behalf of the federal government to grant these petitions and reopen the cases where they have been denied.”
Kruse added that though she is pleased with the way the USCIS has handled applications thus far, “there’s more work to be done.”
Both Kruse and Blumenthal pointed to the recently-passed Senate immigration bill as a necessary step for protecting both gay and straight “dreamers,” or children of undocumented citizens who were born in the U.S.
The bill passed the Senate by a 68-32 vote, but its fate is uncertain in the House. Blumenthal said there is talk among representatives about killing the Senate’s bill and potentially drafting a new one, but is uncertain what compromise it will take to pass.
“The Republican majority is splintered” in the House, Blumenthal said. “I think they will pass an immigration bill, [but] what’s needed in the House is leadership.”