NEW YORK — Immigration advocates have filed a lawsuit on behalf of several married gay couples, alleging a federal law violates their constitutional rights by preventing them from sponsoring their spouses for green cards.
The complaint, which challenges the federal Defense of Marriage Act, was filed in federal court in Brooklyn by Immigration Equality, an advocacy group. Each of the five couples named as plaintiffs is struggling to obtain U.S. citizenship for a foreign-born spouse.
The 1996 law, known as DOMA, prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and denies federal benefits to married gay couples. The federal government does not recognize lesbian and gay couples for immigration purposes, and several of the couples have been denied green cards.
“The families in today’s lawsuit meet every qualification for immigration benefits, with the sole exception that they happen to be lesbian or gay,” Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, said in a statement.
All of the plaintiffs were married in states that have sanctioned gay marriage. If the couples were heterosexual, the government would recognize the foreign spouse as an immediate relative of the U.S. citizen, paving the way for citizenship, advocates say. The lawsuit claims DOMA violates their constitutional right to equal protection.
The lawsuit was filed Monday against Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Alejandro Mayorkas; Robert M. Cowan, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services National Benefits Center; and Daniel Renaud, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Vermont Service Center.
The federal government declined to comment Tuesday.
Plaintiffs Heather Morgan and Maria del Mar Verdugo, who live in New York City and were married last year, said their plans for the future are in limbo as they await the status of their green card application for Verdugo, who is from Madrid. But they know it’s unlikely to be approved.
“We love one another without measure,” said Morgan, 36, marketing director for a global non-profit organization in New York. “And all we want is the opportunity to be recognized as the family that we are, just like anyone else.”
Verdugo, 42, said it’s painful not knowing whether they will be able to raise children together in the U.S.
“We would love to have a family,” she said. “But at this moment, we can’t do it.”
The plaintiffs include immigrants from South Africa, Japan, Venezuela and England.
A federal judge in Massachusetts declared a key section of the law unconstitutional in 2010 after state Attorney General Martha Coakley and the legal group Gay &Lesbian Advocates &Defenders sued. The judge found that the law interferes with the right of a state to define marriage and denies married gay couples an array of federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint tax returns.
An appeal by a bipartisan congressional group will be heard Wednesday by the federal appeals court in Boston.
DOMA was enacted when it appeared Hawaii would soon legalize same-sex marriage and opponents worried that other states would be forced to recognize such marriages. Since the national law was passed in 1996, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, while eight states have legalized it: Connecticut, New York, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland and Washington state, as well as the District of Columbia. Maryland and Washington state’s laws are not yet in effect and may be subject to referendums.