FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Bulgarian graduate student and his American husband are the first gay couple in the nation to have their application for immigration benefits approved after the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriages, their lawyer said.
The approval means Traian Popov, here on a student visa, will be able to apply for a green card, and eventually U.S. citizenship. But he won't be able to work or visit his family back home for at least another three to six months while his application benefits are being be processed. And his marriage to Julian Marsh, performed in New York, still won't be recognized in Florida where they live.
"It's unbelievable how that impacts you," Marsh told The Associated Press on Sunday. "They make you feel more and more like a second-class citizen and they don't want you. And that's how I feel about Florida."
Two days after the Supreme Court struck down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples, Marsh and Popov were notified Friday afternoon that their green card petition was approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security could not immediately confirm Monday whether this case was the first. Secretary Janet Napolitano said Monday the government would start reviewing applications for green cards and other immigration benefits for same-sex couples in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision.
Popov and Marsh's lawyer, Lavi Soloway of The DOMA Project, said his organization filed about 100 green card petitions for same-sex couples since 2010 and expects more to be approved in the next few days.
Lawyers say the ruling would help same-sex couples who are running out of options or are facing deportations.
"Now all of those cases can go forward in the way they should with the government respecting the fact that there is a legally recognizable marriage there," said Laura Lichter, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
There are roughly 36,000 couples in the country in which one person is a U.S. citizen and one is not, according to Immigration Equality, a nonprofit organization that handles immigration issues for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender couples.
In the first three days after DOMA was struck down, the group received 1,276 inquiries to its legal hotline — roughly the same number they received in all of 2012.
"We are still getting more volume and expect by the end of July to be around 3,000," said Rachel T. Biven, the group's executive director.
The Supreme Court ruling is clear for same-sex couples who live in the 13 states that allow same-sex marriages, but for couples like Marsh and Popov who traveled to another state to get married, the latest victory for marriage equality is bittersweet.
"We would like our marriage to be recognized even in a state where it wasn't performed in," Popov said. "We want civil recognition."
Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 banning same-sex marriages, and it will take approval from 60 percent of voters to overturn it if the issue is put on the ballot again.
The couple said they met in 2011 at a friend's party and began dating shortly after.
"We just really liked each other and I knew this was the man I wanted to be with," Marsh said. Six months later, he asked Popov to move in and by 2012 they were married in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Popov, who is studying for a master's degree in social sciences, was able to remain in the U.S. as long as he was enrolled in school. When he graduated, though, he would have had to leave the country if DOMA was not struck down.
"I wanted to stay with him forever in the country that we chose to be in," Marsh said. And the pair began planning their next move — both have a European background and Marsh is also a Canadian citizen.
But the couple wanted to stay in Fort Lauderdale, where they live with their two Yorkshire terriers. So they reached out to The DOMA Project, which works to stop deportations and separations of gay couples caused by the Defense of Marriage Act.
"I started crying," said attorney and DOMA Project co-founder Lavi Soloway of when he found out that not only DOMA was overturned, but that Marsh and Popov would be able to stay together in the U.S. He said he was working to help dozens of other couples facing similar separations.
Popov said the couple feels they've been vindicated.
"It's still overwhelming, and we would like to make a difference in Florida," Marsh said.
Associated Press writer Alicia Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Suzette Laboy on Twitter: @SuzetteLaboy