DOMA Impacts Residency For Virginia Family

Sofia and Sydney

DOMA is having a positive impact for one binational Virginia couple.  Sydney Jordan-Cooley met Sofia Zachrissonmet while she was teaching in Guatemala in 2007.  A native Virginian, Sydney returned to Richmond with Sofia and started training to be an active part of the family business - Restoration Builders of Virginia, a contracting firm that specializes in rehabilitating historic homes.

Sofia, a citizen of Guatemala, was able to stay in Virginia her first year on a tourism visa and was able to return on a student visa to attend community college.  After graduating last year, she was able to get an OPT (Optional Practical Training) work permit.  Under OPT, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) allows work up to one year after graduation on a student visa.

With the OPT permit, Sofia was able to begin working with Sydney and her family’s firm --- but that permit was set to expire this December.

“I had to do all of this to stay in the country legally,” Sofia says. “Getting a work visa is a lot harder and civil partnerships were not recognized [before DOMA].”

A sponsoring business must prove that someone within the United States cannot perform the job function as a qualifier for a work visa to be issued.   For a small, family-owned business like RBVA, sponsoring a work visa can be a long, tedious and sometimes expensive process.  That cost can run at least $3,500 including filings, applications and legal fees according to immigration attorney Emily Sumner.

DOMA’s repeal has changed that.

The Supreme Court ruling opened up a new option for the couple that wasn’t previously on the table.  Sofia and Sydney decided to get married in Washington, DC  prior to the June decision.  Now, since legally wed although still residing in Virginia, Sofia is now eligible to stay in the country through her marriage.

The couple reached out to Sumner to begin the residency process.

According to Sumner, since the DOMA decision, USCIS has done a lot of work on the ground level, but says that this still needs to be communicated as an option for families affected.

“Unless they’re paying attention to the issue, they may or may not know,” Sumner said.   “I’m so thankful they have come out with clear guidance so quickly.  Things seem to be going really really well.  It seems to be going through as smoothly as expected.”

She mentioned that there is still outreach to be done to make sure couples know they are eligible.  As in Sofia and Sydney’s case, a married couple living in Virginia can file although that marriage is not recognized by Virginia.

According to Sumner, depending on the person’s current immigration status, the process can take about six months once a petition is filed by the green card holder’s spouse and the application for permanent residence is received.  She adds that DOMA’s benefit goes beyond family-based filings.

Previously, a gay or lesbian foreign national on a their H1B visa would not be able to bring their spouse on an H4 visa.  Now, they can include their spouse on a permanent residence.

“My wife happens to be from Richmond and from the US.  In any marriage, there are compromises,” Sofia says of the decision to come to America.  “A lot of people have this idea of Latin American people coming into the country just to better themselves. I didn't escape poverty - my family wasn't poor.”

“I chose my partner and she happened to be American.”

Emily Sumner is with Sumner Immigration Law.  More information is available at  Publication does not imply endorsement by Equality Virginia or any warranty of legal services.  Additional service providers can be found on our legal resources page.