In Georgia, Few Gay Immigrant Couples Applying for Green Cards

In Georgia, Few Gay Immigrant Couples Applying for Green Cards

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Pictured above: Newlyweds Martín Ramírez (left) and Fernando Palacios, both 41 years old, at the courthouse in Queens, N.Y., where they were married on Aug. 14, 2013. Photo courtesy of Unidos por un Deseo.

Traducción al español

ATLANTA -- Not in their wildest dreams did Fernando Palacios and Martín Ramírez ever imagine their love for each other would provide an answer their immigration troubles. The Mexican couple first met 11 years ago at a gay nightclub in Atlanta and since then their relationship has strengthened over time.

But while Palacios has been a legal U.S. resident for more than 15 years, Ramírez remains in the shadows, afraid he could one day be detained by police and deported.

“Seven years ago we experienced something really unpleasant in Gainesville,” recalled Palacios. “One day Martín was driving, and a police officer pulled us over because the officer said Martín wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, which wasn’t true. They asked him for his driver’s license and, because he doesn’t have one, they arrested him and he spent eight hours in jail.” 

What You Need to Know

Where is Same-Sex Marriage Legally Recognized in the U.S.?: Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Washington, D.C.

Marriage Proceedings in New York:
1. You must obtain a marriage license, which costs $35. The request can be made online on the website of the New York City Clerk.
2. After obtaining the online application, the couple must go to the City Clerk’s office to complete the application.
3. The couple then waits a few hours while the license is issued.
4. The couple must wait 24 hours before a civil ceremony can be held.

Required Documentation:
-- The marriage application is a sworn affidavit, in which applicants list various personal details (name, address, place and date of birth, social security numbers, previous marriages, divorces, etc.).
-- A valid driver's license or identification card.
-- A valid passport or certificate of U.S. nationalization or valid foreign ID card.
-- If one of the partners is undocumented, he or she must present a passport from his or her country of origin, matrícula consular and tax ID number.

Advice from Attorneys
Jonathan Eoloff and Aarón Ortiz made the following recommendations for people in the LGBT community who want to get married and apply for permanent residency for a spouse:

1. Avoid fraud.
2. Collect documents verifying the relationship (bank accounts, insurance policies, real estate purchases, leases signed by both parties, photographs with their families, etc.).
3. Seek the counsel of an attorney to verify and correct any irregularities such as misdemeanors, certain immigration violations or to apply for a waiver if necessary.
4. Applicants must meet the health, vaccination and economic requirements of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

After paying a $1,000 fine, Palacios was able to bail Ramírez out of jail and soon afterwards they moved to the small town of Suwannee, on the outskirts of Atlanta, where they now live.

The couple is one of only a few in Georgia that have taken advantage of a recent ruling allowing partners in same-sex couples to petition for residency.

Striking down DOMA

Like millions of undocumented immigrants in the country, Palacios and Ramírez are hopeful the U.S. Congress will one day pass immigration reform legislation. When that day will come is still unclear, but a historic ruling three months ago has opened another path toward resolving their immigration impasse.

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

The high court found that section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional since it violated the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees. That part of the law defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman and did not recognize gay couples.

Across the country, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities and those who advocate for their rights celebrated the Supreme Court ruling, which recognized that married same-sex couples had the same rights at the federal level as heterosexual couples.

“We couldn’t believe the news,” said Ramírez. “Finally the government recognized that gay marriages have the same rights as heterosexual [marriages].”

President Barack Obama praised the court’s decision, the first U.S. president to publicly support gay marriage. Soon after the ruling he ordered Attorney General Eric Holder and other members of his cabinet to review the statutes related to the decision. 

Secretary of State John Kerry announced in August that the Department of Homeland Security had already started reviewing residency applications submitted by same-sex couples. “When same-sex spouses apply for a visa, the Department of State will consider that application in the same manner that it considers the application of opposite-sex spouses,” said Kerry.

In late August, the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that gay marriages would also be recognized for federal tax purposes.

Only a few ‘tying the knot’

Emboldened by the Supreme Court decision, Palacios and Ramírez quickly decided to get married in a civil ceremony in order to receive the benefits conferred by federal law, including the ability to petition for Martín’s green card.

“Finally I saw a light at the end of the tunnel,” recalled Ramírez.

After a quick search to see which states recognize same-sex marriage, Palacios and Ramírez decided that New York was their best option. The state of Georgia prohibits same-sex marriages.

“On August 8 another gay couple we know told us they were going to get married in Queens. They asked us if we wanted to do it too. We said yes and on August 12 at dawn we were in a car heading to Queens,” recalled Palacios. Two days later, the two couples were married in a New York court. 

When they returned to Georgia, Palacios and Ramírez sought advice from attorney Aarón Ortiz, who is now processing their application to regularize Ramírez's immigration status. But in order to petition for Ramírez to get a green card, Palacios will first have to apply to become a U.S. citizen.

“I just submitted my paperwork,” said Palacios. “In a few months … I could become a citizen.”

In the meantime, the pair can begin to enjoy the other benefits conferred on all married couples. Palacios and Ramírez can now claim joint ownership over the assets they share as a couple, something previously denied to gay couples, while they also gain visitation rights should one of them fall ill and be hospitalized.

Still, despite the gains, lawyers say only a handful of immigrant gay couples in Georgia have sought to take advantage of the opportunities the DOMA ruling affords.

According to Jonathan Eoloff, director of immigration services for the Latin American Association in Atlanta, since the Supreme Court’s decision was announced, only six people have come into his office to ask for advice about regularizing their immigration status through same-sex marriage.

“In Georgia, you don’t see many cases of same-sex marriage ... That doesn’t mean couples that want to get married can’t do it. There are 13 states where they can go to get married,” Eoloff explained. 

He added that long before the Supreme Court’s ruling, members of the LGBT community would contact him -- though most of those cases involved applying for political asylum in the United States. More needs to be done, he says, to spread the word about the immigration benefits of same-sex marriage. 

“I think we have to get more information about this issue to the gay Latino community,” said Eoloff, “in order for them to make the right decisions.”

For more information, please visit:

Unidos por un Deseo
 A non-profit organization that promotes HIV prevention in Georgia’s Latino community.

Immigration Equality 
The country’s first and only organization dedicated exclusively to achieving full equality for LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants.

Human Rights Campaign
 The largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for LGBT Americans.

This article was produced as part of New America Media's LGBT immigration reporting fellowship sponsored by the Four Freedoms Fund.