Even as they brace for the U.S. Supreme Court's looming deliberations on same-sex marriage, thousands of gay and lesbian couples are looking to another civil rights battle -- equality in immigration law.
About 48,000 same-sex couples in the United States include at least one immigrant partner who is not a citizen, according to a study released Friday by UCLA's Williams Institute. Even if those couples are legally married, the federal government denies them the visas that allow opposite-sex immigrant spouses to become Americans.
"We've started calling ourselves 'prisoners of love,'" said San Jose resident Judy Rickard, whose British wife, Karin Bogliolo, is living in immigration limbo that cannot end "until something happens in Congress or the Supreme Court."
The prohibition will be tested as the Supreme Court this month takes up California's same-sex marriage ban and the U.S. law that denies same-sex couples federal benefits, including immigration. At the same time, Congress is debating whether to include relief for gay and lesbian spouses in its immigration legislation, including a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose.
"I'm pretty positive something's going to happen this summer," said Bogliolo, speaking with cheerful optimism at the couple's San Jose home.
They're both excited by the number of Republicans supporting gay marriage in legal briefs submitted to the high court. But they also recognize the strong opposition in Congress to favoring gay immigrants.
The 72-year-old retired British publisher was already a grandmother seven years ago when she fell in love with Rickard, now 65, a U.S. citizen and former marketing director at San Jose State University. The pair married legally two years ago in Vermont and hoped to settle in Rickard's home in San Jose's Cambrian neighborhood.
Wedding an American citizen has long been one of the fastest routes to permanent U.S. residency and citizenship, but that path excludes foreign-born gay and lesbian spouses. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, for immigration and all other federal purposes, codifies marriage as a legal union strictly between a man and a woman.
"I had no idea of the problems we'd have in trying to keep me here," said Bogliolo. European nations, she said, are "light years ahead" on the issue.
For years, Bogliolo traveled from Europe to California as a tourist or for business, staying with Rickard for as long as she could.
"We've been apart probably half as much as we've been together," Rickard said.
But after they tied the knot in Vermont, Bogliolo defied the immigration restrictions and stayed after her visiting time expired.
"We pushed the envelope by just applying for green cards and seeing what happens," Rickard said.
They are still awaiting an answer, but the political climate appears to be changing in their favor.
The new estimates released Friday by the Williams Institute show how an immigration overhaul could affect gays and lesbians.
Nearly 30 percent of the estimated 900,000 adult immigrants who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are here illegally, according to the center. Many couples that include an illegal immigrant are raising children but live with the risk of separation.
"If you don't know about us, you don't include us in the comprehensive part of comprehensive immigration reform," said Rickard, who wrote a book -- part memoir, and part resource guide that gives "ammunition to fight the fight."
Supporting their cause is U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, who has reintroduced a bill that would allow American citizens or legal permanent residents to sponsor a same-sex spouse for a green card.
If the Supreme Court does not strike down the federal same-sex marriage ban, Honda's bill would allow green cards for same-sex "domestic partners." So would a bipartisan Senate bill, the Uniting American Families Act.
Similar legislation has languished in the House for 13 years, but Honda sees signs that "this country is about ready to deal with this thing head on."
Still, despite shifting opinions, Honda's proposal remains a sticking point in the congressional immigration debate. The cause has frayed alliances with Catholic and evangelical backers of immigration reform, and one prominent Republican says same-sex rights should be left out of the bill.
"Which is more important: LGBT or border security?" asked U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He argued at a January forum in Washington, D.C. that loading an immigration bill with "social issues ... is the best way to derail it."
"He's wrong," countered Honda in a recent interview. "The whole immigration issue is part of a social issue. What part of human activity is not social?"
Matt O'Brien covers immigration. Contact him at 510-293-2465.