Genesio Oliveira was still sleeping Wednesday morning in Haverhill when his husband, Tim Coco, awakened him.
“DOMA’s gone,” Coco said.
Oliveira, a native of Brazil, thought he was dreaming. Then he sat up, shouted, and they hugged in celebration of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that has threatened to separate them since they married eight years ago in Massachusetts, the first state to allow gay marriage.
As a result of the ruling, gay and lesbian US citizens and green-card holders for the first time can apply to sponsor their foreign spouses for legal residency.
“Ahaha! I’m so happy,” said Oliveira, a 34-year-old former waiter. “I can’t believe it. We’re free.”
Immigrants had high stakes in the court’s decision to overturn the 1996 act that declared marriage to be solely between a man and a woman, allowing only heterosexuals to seek green cards for their spouses. Because of the law, many gay and lesbian couples have been forced to live apart for years, while others left the country together into self-described exile.
Now thousands of US citizens and green-card holders are expected to flood the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration office with applications the agency previously would have rejected.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano applauded the ruling and noted that the Obama administration had opposed DOMA.
“This discriminatory law denied thousands of legally married same-sex couples many important federal benefits, including immigration benefits,” she said, adding, “we will implement today’s decision so that all married couples will be treated equally and fairly in the administration of our immigration laws.”
More than 30,000 gay couples in the United States involve a US citizen and a foreign national, though it is unknown if they are married, said Gary Gates, a demographer at the University of California Los Angeles law school, who calculated the estimate based on census figures. Thousands of children are also likely to be affected by the decision, since their parents will be able to remain together.
Tom Plummer, a staff attorney at Immigration Equality in New York, said gay couples can apply for residency as long as their marriage is valid, and they must still undergo background checks and interviews that are part of the immigration process. Families in the United States can apply for green cards here, he said, while those overseas can apply for visas through US consulates.
“We’re expecting hundreds and hundreds of families to reach out to us,” he said, adding that the ruling affects even people living in states where gay marriage is not valid, if they were married in a state that legally recognizes their union.
In the two hours that followed the decision, Plummer said, the group received 80 requests for help, almost as many as it received all last week.
Oliveira and Coco married in early 2005, more than a year after Massachusetts made gay marriage legal. But they then lived apart, with Oliveira in Brazil and Coco in Haverhill, for almost three years because Coco was unable to sponsor Oliveira for legal residency.
With the help of then-Senator John F. Kerry , Oliveira was allowed to return temporarily in 2010, but Coco said they were again facing separation.
“For the first time in the more than 11 years we’ve been together, we can now plan the future,” said Coco, a 52-year-old advertising executive.
Many had hoped Congress would resolve the issue if the court did not, but that proved unlikely last month when Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy withdrew a gay marriage amendment to the immigration bill amid opposition.
In Newtown, Conn., time was running out for Lucy Truman.
The 44-year-old United Kingdom citizen was supposed to leave the United States when her visa expires Sunday. She met her American wife, Kelli Ryan, 13 years ago in Scotland when they worked in the same lab. Both immunologists, they shared a love of science, but also an affinity for Helen Reddy, pancakes, and each other.
They married in a civil partnership ceremony in 2006 in England. Since then, they have battled to stay together.
The couple spent two years apart until Truman won a fellowship at Yale, and then they married again in 2010 in Connecticut. Ryan, 41, sought legal residency for Truman, but her application was rejected.
On Wednesday, tension filled their home before the ruling. They sat on the couch in front of the TV and watched the ruling on SCOTUSblog.com, a website that tracks Supreme Court rulings.
At 10 a.m., the scroll turned to DOMA. The vote was 5 to 4, striking down the law.
They hugged, kissed, and the phone started ringing.
“Thank goodness,” Truman said. “Because the alternatives were just unbearable really. We want to be together. That was the simple thing.”
In their joy, they realized they had not planned past Sunday, when Truman’s visa expires.
They laughed as they imagined the possibilities.
Truman’s first step?
“Unpacking,” she said.