Outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday, Joseph O'Farrell searched the crowd of cheering same-sex marriage proponents for his husband.
Before the couple connected, O'Farrell sent Rafael Ramirez a quick text message: "Yay!"
For the Laurel couple, the high court decision to strike down the law that barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage means that O'Farrell will finally be able to sponsor his Mexican spouse in his efforts to become a U.S. citizen.
"It really is a weight lifted off our shoulders," O'Farrell, 28, said Wednesday evening. "We can actually sit down and plan a future now."
For binational same-sex couples across the United States — including those legally married in Maryland — the court's 5-4 ruling offered the prospect of relief from an immigration quagmire that has disrupted lives, threatened relationships and wrought havoc on their emotional and financial stability.
Under the Defense of Marriage Act, gay and lesbian citizens could not sponsor their foreign spouses for citizenship, a right granted to heterosexual binational couples. Now that the court has found the law unconstitutional, activists, lawmakers and analysts expect a wave of applications.
The Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles estimated this year that there are nearly 25,000 binational same-sex couples living in the country.
Sirine Shebaya, directing attorney of immigrant rights advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the ability to sponsor one's spouse for citizenship is "one of the core ways people are able to maintain their core unity and stay together in the United States."
Spouses of U.S. citizens may receive a provisional green card quickly and apply for citizenship after three years under an "expedited path" that isn't available to foreign nationals seeking citizenship through other means.
"It's cleaner and easier and it's based on family unity rather than any other merit," Shebaya said. She said the inability of gay partners to use the expedited path has torn couples apart.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had sought to allow gay citizens to sponsor foreign spouses as part of the immigration overhaul now in Congress. The Vermont Democrat said Wednesday that the court ruling had rendered his effort "moot."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano applauded the ruling Wednesday and said her department would work to implement it in the immigration process.
Gay couples in Maryland said they could now relax after years of living in limbo.
Kelly Cross lives with his Polish husband, Mateusz Rozanski, in the Old Goucher neighborhood of Baltimore.
"We were kind of just going forward with the life we wanted to live and what we wanted to do here, but we always had this hanging over our heads," said Cross, 34. "I imagine for most Americans it's just another Supreme Court decision, but for us it was about our ability to just exist here, our fundamental ability to live in Baltimore."
Rozanski, 35, who has been in the country illegally since September, has largely confined himself to the couple's large home for months. Rozanski holds three master's degrees, but has not been able to work or fly on airplanes, for fear of running into immigration officials.
Cross and Rozanski, who have been together for nearly seven years, say they have spent thousands of dollars on legal fees and missed out on tax deductions that would otherwise be theirs.
They say they have known couples who have left the country. For a time, they left too, moving to Germany and Poland and struggling to remain together.
"It's not easy to change your place or where you want to live because of political situations," Rozanski said. "When you are forced, it's not always comfortable and it can impact your career, your life and even the relationship."
Ramirez, 27, has been married to O'Farrell for two years, but said he has not been able to get a driver's license or hold a job.