When the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday, it also solved one of the thorniest dilemmas facing Congress: whether and how to give same-sex couples access to immigration benefits.
Before the Supreme Court acted, roughly 36,000 American citizens were specifically barred from applying for green cards for their same-sex spouses. But following the ruling, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano confirmed that any legally valid marriage of a U.S. citizen would be recognized for immigration benefits. If immigration reform passes Congress, same-sex couples will automatically be covered by the new law without any extra debate or amendments.
“I think there is bipartisan relief today that the court resolved the issue,” says Steve Ralls, the spokesman for Immigration Equality, a group advocating for binational same-sex couples. “I have no doubt that both Democratic and Republican senators are glad the court fixed this issue before the Senate had to take another vote on it.”
The issue had pitted two of the Democratic Party’s most important constituencies against each other, with LGBT advocates seeing the immigration debate as a crucial vehicle to move marriage equality forward, but immigration advocates seeing gay marriage as someone else’s battle, or at least a fight for another day.
The debate was becoming so volatile that an amendment from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to give same-sex couples immigration benefits nearly torpedoed the entire bill in the Judiciary Committee this year. As Leahy moved to vote in the committee, the most liberal Democrats on the panel implored him not to bring more controversy to the immigration debate than it could bear.
“We know this is going to blow the agreement apart and I don’t want to blow this bill apart,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said at the time. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the choice between marriage equality and immigration reform “excruciating,” but told Leahy he could not be with him in the fight this time. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said the Leahy amendment was the “wrong moment and the wrong bill.” Leahy pulled his amendment at the time, but brought it back to the Senate as the immigration-reform debate heated up.
Moments after the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling Wednesday, Leahy went to the Senate floor to say his considers the matter closed.
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