LAS CRUCES, N.M. - If Ryan Steinmetz were engaged, he could get a visa for his fiancé in about a year.
But federal law bars recognition of same-sex marriage, so the New Mexico resident and his fiancé of five years, Salvador Adame, remain separated by the Mexican border.
Adame is a Mexican citizen working to obtain a U.S. medical license, a lengthy and costly process that has lasted years. Violence in Juárez, meantime, limits Steinmetz's travels south.
The Supreme Court today hears oral arguments on the Defense Against Marriage Act, a federal law barring same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits, including petitioning a green card for a fiancé or spouse. If the court decides to strike down the law, more than 28,000 bi-national, same-sex couples like Steinmetz, 35, and Adame, 33, would see their lives change.
"It would just alleviate so many challenges immediately," said Steinmetz, director of the Border Servants Corps, an AmeriCorps organization. "It would allow us to apply for legal status in the same ways that straight couples do who are of mixed immigration status ... We'd still have some waiting to do, a period of a year or so, with a more definitive end in sight."
As such, the two travel across the border when they can, though cartel violence in northern Mexico and Adame's new geriatric residency program in Monterey complicate their relationship. They swap Facebook and text messages back and forth, calling each other on the phone or Skype when money, Internet connections and schedules allow.
Defense of Marriage Act
DOMA defines marriage as between one man and one woman and denies federal benefits - from joint-filing taxes to employment benefits to immigration - to same-sex couples even if they are legally married in their states. United States v. Windsor, up for debate today, challenges the act.
The justices will decide by the end of June whether the legislation, enacted in 1996, violates the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law.
"We really don't know what the U.S. Supreme Court is going to do," said Laura Schawer Ives, legal director for ACLU of New Mexico, which supports the law's repeal.
Proponents of the act say it standardizes federal policies and leaves states free to recognize same-sex marriage themselves. Congress had a good reason to support traditional marriage and family structures when DOMA was passed, they argue.
Children do better with a mother and father, DOMA supporter Bev Courtney of Las Cruces said, and tax breaks and benefits for married couples help them take care of their children, she said.
"I'm very pro traditional marriage because I believe strong marriages make a strong society which make a strong nation," said Courtney, founder of the American Gun Culture Club.
Opponents say it amounts to discrimination, similar to historical prohibitions on biracial marriages.
"If anybody ever needed an argument that gay marriage would only be good in the world," said Liz Schirmer, a friend of Steinmetz and Adame, "look at Ryan and Sal."
Like Steinmetz and Adame, the majority of bi-national, same-sex coupes are from Mexico, about 25 percent, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles law school.
Steinmetz and Adame have been together six years and engaged five, traveling back and forth on tourist and student visas. They hope to marry and raise a family some day.
Bringing Adame to the United States through the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam became a priority when a gunman held up the Juárez hospital where he worked.
The exam requires three tests in English, so Adame has taken anatomy and biology classes at local community colleges on a student visa.
He will complete the third part of the exam in May, a day of diagnosing patients in Houston. The test will cost $1,500.
If he passes, he can apply for U.S. residency programs.
The visa process, as well as acquiring materials to prepare for various test sections, has been grueling and expensive, Steinmetz said.
"Every time we get over a hurdle, it feels like there's another larger hurdle in front of us," he said. "And that's been the challenge in our relationship. We're striving together to have this life together and to build a life together, and our celebrations have been short for when we get over one of those hurdles because it always seems like, man, there's another insurmountable hurdle in front of us."
'Loving's not the hard part'
Steinmetz and Adame try to remain hopeful, but sometimes it feels like their dreams won't come true, Steinmetz said.
"Everything is so complicated with our situation, and I don't understand why that needs to be," Adame wrote in a message to Steinmetz from Monterey. "I love you, you love me. We want to be in each others' live, and we should be together."
If the two could get married, the constant worries and struggles over Adame's immigration status would disappear, Steinmetz said.
"I'm really excited, and sometimes scared with what is going to happen with the courts, but we will wait and see," Adame wrote in a Facebook message. "I think minds are changing because people have seen that our love is like anyone else's love. We have waited so long to see what will happen, but we can wait a little more now with aun mas esperanza (even more hope)."
Sometimes, Steinmetz feels like loving someone shouldn't be this hard.
"But the you look across and you see the person's face," he said, "and you realize it's not the loving that's the hard part, it's convincing everyone else that your love matters."