Immigration Impact of Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Decision13 Jul 2015
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, pursuant to the individual liberties protected by the constitution of the United States, all U.S. states must permit same-sex marriages. Although this case did not directly deal with immigration law, it nevertheless serves to expand upon a 2013 Supreme Court decision that resulted in availability of marriage-based immigration benefits to same-sex couples.
Background: State Marriage Laws
In the United States, each state establishes laws regarding issuance of licenses needed to enter into a legal marriage within that state. Among other restrictions, these laws limit eligibility to marry by age and prohibit marriages between individuals who have close family relationships (e.g., siblings). States have a high level of discretion on marriage requirements and restrictions, resulting in marriage laws that vary from state to state.
States do not have unlimited power, however, to set restrictions on marriage. The state laws must not violate constitutional protections, which apply nationwide. For example, nearly fifty years ago, the Supreme Court held that any state law banning interracial marriages violated the Constitution.
Supreme Court Holds State Laws Banning Gay Marriage Unconstitutional
The Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, involved a challenge to the laws in four states that permitted marriage only between one man and one woman. The Supreme Court determined that it is unconstitutional for states to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.
Extension of Windsor Holding to States
The Obergefell decision is essentially an extension of the 2013 holding in U.S. v. Windsor, which struck down part of a law known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. DOMA prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. The importance of this in the immigration context is that DOMA prevented lawfully married same-sex couples from being granted immigration benefits based upon the marital relationship. In Windsor, the Supreme Court held that this violated constitutional due process and equal protection principles. As explained in the MurthyDotCom NewsBrief, DOMA and Immigration Benefits (08.Jul.2013), in striking down DOMA, the court made same-sex couples eligible for immigration benefits to the same extent as heterosexual couples.
As with the Windsor case, the Obergefell decision was based on due process and equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Following this decision, same-sex couples will be able to marry in any state within the United States. From an immigration perspective, this will facilitate the ability to marry in one’s state of choice and, thereafter, pursue any appropriate immigration benefits.
The Obergefell holding is part of a continuum of civil rights-related decisions expanding freedom of choice in marriage partners, as well as legal recognition and federal benefits through such marriages. This represents a significant policy evolution that continues to benefit foreign nationals who seek the same immigration options and protections given to heterosexual married couples.
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