DOMA and Immigration: What Next?

President Obama’s decision to challenge the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) came as a shock to gay rights activists and conservative lawmakers alike. The full implications of this decision remain unclear, however, and gay immigrants have been on an emotional roller coaster as rights are granted one week and denied the next.

Obama directed the Department of Justice to stop enforcing DOMA in court on February 23, though the actual law still remains on the books. The resulting uncertainty about DOMA’s future immediately began to influence court cases. In what appears to be a groundbreaking decision, on March 22 an immigration judge in New York delayed deportation proceedings for a lesbian immigrant in light of the president’s announcement.

Argentine immigrant Monica Alcota married Cristina Ojeda – a U.S. citizen – last summer in Connecticut and would be directly affected by a DOMA repeal. Alcota has been at risk of being deported since overstaying her tourist visa and a 2009 encounter with immigration officers that led to three months in prison. Marriage to a U.S. citizen waives visa overstay violations for heterosexual couples, but as long as DOMA remains law, same-sex couples do not have the same rights.

After their hearing, the couple sounded excited and relieved.

“In a way [the judge] is recognizing our marriage as equal,” Alcota said. According to her attorney, Lavi Solloway, this is the first time a judge has ever made such a decision. “We feel even more hope now,” she said.

But last Wednesday, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) retracted an earlier statement, first reported in The Daily Beast, that they would stop denying green card applications from same-sex couples and put them on hold while awaiting legal guidance after the president’s decision on DOMA. Immediately, despite Tuesday’s small court victory, Cristina and Monica’s future became less certain.

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This story was produced by Feet in Two Worldsa project at Milano The New School's Center for New York City AffairsFi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.