Until Monday, Els Sipkes and Mascha Jansen op de Haar, two Charleston women who were legally married in New York earlier this year, weren't sure if they'd ever be able to live together as a family in South Carolina. This week they were just approved for a marriage-based green card.
While Sipkes is a naturalized U.S. citizen, Jansen op de Haar is from the Netherlands. The two have been together for more than a decade, but until this year Sipkes couldn't sponsor her wife for a green card because U.S. law didn't allow it for same-sex couples. That changed, however, in June when a landmark decision came down from the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. DOMA had previously denied same-sex couples certain rights under U.S. law relating to everything from taxes to healthcare to immigration issues.
The High Court's June decision meant gay couples who were legally married in states that allow it would be afforded the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. That included green cards, and in July Sipkes applied for one on the basis of their marriage.
On Monday, the application for the green card was approved. A federal officer, Sipkes says, told them it's the first approval of its kind out of the Charleston office.
It was in 2001 when the two decided they wanted to be together. But Sipkes was living in California and Jansen op de Haar was in the Netherlands. Same-sex marriage is legal in the Netherlands, but they preferred to live in the United States. So Jansen op de Harr moved to America to be with Sipkes, and enrolled in college.
“And that's basically how she's been able to stay in the country for 12 years, just by continually re-enrolling in universities,” Sipkes says.
With a green card, Jansen op de Haar will be considered a permanent resident.
“We had no idea that this was going to go as fast as it did,” Sipkes says. Needless to say, the two have been celebrating.
Regardless of what the federal government says, however, South Carolina won't recognize
the couples' marriage. A state law and constitutional amendment bans same-sex marriage. Both the Republican and the Democrat
running for governor in 2014 back the current ban. A Lexington County couple who were legally married in Washington, D.C., however, have filed a federal lawsuit
For this Charleston couple it's clearly still a victory.
“It doesn't feel great to be recognized as equal by the federal government and then not be recognized as equal in your own state where you live,” Sipkes say. “But that being said, we're very happy that the federal government recognizes our relationship and for us getting this green card was of course huge in terms of being able to live together in the country where we want to live.”
Tom Plummer, who focuses on binational couples as a staff attorney in New York for the group Immigration Equality, says he's been impressed with how the the Supreme Court's DOMA decision has been implemented in the context of immigration. He says he's been hearing from couples every day from states like Texas to Oregon — and this week South Carolina — who are in same-sex marriages and have been approved for green cards.
“We're very encouraged by that,” he says.
South Carolina Equality director Ryan Wilson called the recent green card approval here great news. He's an LGBT advocate, obviously, but it also hits close to home for him personally. His partner is a citizen of Sri Lanka who hopes to get a green card here when he's done with school. Wilson says he knows of at least half a dozen other same-sex couples in South Carolina who are in the process of doing the same.
“We were thrilled the day DOMA came down because so many times we've been told 'You can't, you can't, you can't,'" he says. "And now you can."