Judge Halts Deportation Hearing Moments After DOMA Ruling

Sean Brooks and Steven Infante at their wedding. (Courtesy of The DOMA Project)

Sean Brooks and Steven Infante at their wedding. (Courtesy of The DOMA Project)

On Wednesday morning, Sean Brooks and his husband and partner of nearly ten years, Steven Infante, were gathered in an office with their attorneys, family members and a sheaf of legal documents. It would be the second time that the couple appeared before a judge to petition for a green card for Mr. Infante. Otherwise, he faced deportation.

For Mr. Brooks, 46, and Mr. Infante, 34, the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act came not a moment too soon. The couple received the news that DOMA had been overturned as they had gathered at their attorney’s office, a few blocks from the courthouse where they were scheduled to appear for a 10:30 a.m. hearing.

“I was afraid the judge would say, ‘You have to leave the country,’” Mr. Infante told The Observer. “This was one of the options that was on the table.”

They proceeded to the courthouse with renewed hope. “As we were entering the courtroom, the buzz was literally in the air around us,” Mr. Brooks said. “I’m sure [people] two floors above heard how loudly everyone was cheering.”

All over New York, same-sex couples rejoiced with the news that the Supreme Court had overturned DOMA, which prohibited married same-sex couples from receiving the same federal benefits afforded to opposite-sex spouses. The ruling is a particularly momentous occasion for bi-national couples. Under the previous laws, gay and lesbian partners could not sponsor their spouses for green cards or file to bring them to the United States; as a result, many same-sex couples were separated, deported, or forced to live in exile in countries that recognized their union.

(Courtesy of The DOMA Project)

(Courtesy of The DOMA Project)

At first, members of the court appeared confused. The government prosecutor and the judge had both heard the news, but were not yet sure what it meant. After a tense moment of deliberation, the judge concluded that without any precedent there could be no way to proceed. The new law would take 25 days to come into effect; the couple’s hearing was rescheduled to October, and the tension melted away.

“The only reason that the petition was denied was basically DOMA,” Mr. Brooks said. “There isn’t any reason for the petition to be denied anymore. So that’s where we’re going to be picked up.”

“I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘Well, why don’t you just get married?’” he added. “They didn’t even know that same-sex marriages didn’t allow for immigration rights. They didn’t know it was an issue. This [ruling] is wonderful to the point that them not knowing is okay, because it’s not true anymore anyway.”

MR. BROOKS AND MR. INFANTE began dating in 2004. They married in August of 2011, not long after the state of New York legalized same-sex marriage, on their seven-year anniversary.

In December of that year, Mr. Brooks wrote an eloquent post for the website of The DOMA Project, an organization that lobbies against the deportation, separation and exile of gay and lesbian couples.

“It seems to me that I have spent my whole life trying to not be a second-class citizen, but that effort has been quietly and insidiously trumped by becoming an ‘other-class citizen,’” Mr. Brooks wrote. “[My husband] could be taken from me and from our home by my own government. We are legally married, but he’s not able to immigrate. We live in a legal limbo.”

The couple petitioned to obtain a green card, but it was denied under the auspices of the Defense of Marriage Act. They appeared before a judge to appeal in April of 2012, arguing that Mr. Infante should not be deported to his native country of Colombia. The hearing was set to continue on June 26th, 2013.

(The DOMA Project)

(The DOMA Project)

Lavi Soloway, an attorney and activist with The DOMA Project, told The Observer that the ruling would have an effect on the way same-sex couples are perceived even in states that do not currently permit gay marriage.

“Those couples will be filing federal income tax returns as married couples, and that will change the public discourse,” he said.

Mr. Brooks acknowledged that with same-sex marriage still illegal in more than 30 states, there is much more work to be done. For now, however, he and his husband are simply looking forward to their future.

“My marriage is not only recognized between me and my husband, just carrying a piece of paper that says we’re married,” Mr. Infante said. “[Now] we can be recognized – and protected – by the government.”