NEW YORK (Reuters) - Santiago Ortiz was deeply in love and, he believed, near death when he asked Pablo Garcia to leave his native Venezuela and join him in New York. There was no time to bother with a visa. Ortiz was HIV positive and he wanted Garcia with him.
That was 26 years ago. Ortiz, an American, is still alive. He and Garcia were married in Connecticut last year. And Garcia still does not have a visa. The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, blocks federal recognition of same-sex relationships.
"I told him, 'I might die tomorrow, I might die in a month,'" recalled Ortiz, soon to be 57, about that romantic moment in Caracas 26 years ago. "I said, 'Don't wait. Come now.'"
The medical treatment of HIV has advanced markedly since the 1980s. Full legal acceptance of gay marriage still has a ways to go.
Their best hope for getting the same visa a heterosexual couple would be eligible for rests with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to hear a challenge to DOMA this year in what could be a breakthrough for gay rights in America.
Although the two men were married in Connecticut, one of nine states that allows same-sex marriage, Garcia was denied his application for permanent residence - which is routine for foreign nationals in heterosexual marriages with Americans, even when the foreigner has overstayed his or her visa.
Garcia, 52, a playwright and a doctoral student in Spanish literature, remains in the United States illegally.
"He swept me off my feet," Ortiz, a retired school psychologist, said as he sipped coffee in the couple's colorful apartment in Queens. "For me, it's been easy. I can go wherever I want, I can travel, and Pablo has been there for me. Pablo doesn't have his papers and it's unfair."
There are at least 28,500 same-sex couples in the United States in which one partner is a U.S. citizen and the other is not, and 11,500 same-sex couples where neither partner is a U.S. citizen, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles.
This year, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to endorse same-sex marriage, and in September his administration issued a policy that lesbian and gay couples be eligible for delays in deportation.
Even so, the wait has been excruciating for bi-national couples living with the threat that one partner could be deported.
"If you are hours from being put on a plane and being deported, there is relief (legal recourse)," said Rachel Tiven of Immigration Equality, a Washington-based group that is representing Ortiz and Garcia. "There is still no access to green cards or any other affirmative immigration benefit."
The Supreme Court was expected to decide whether it will hear a legal challenge to DOMA this session, and could make an announcement as soon as Friday.
It took a decade of friendship for Maria del Mar Verdugo, a citizen of Spain, and Heather Morgan, an American living in New York, to realize they were in love and wanted to spend their lives together. They were married in 2011 and now share a sunny one-bedroom apartment near Columbia University in Manhattan.
Relaxing in their pajamas on a recent Sunday, they talked about living with the worry that Verdugo, who is 43, could lose her marketing job - and with it her employer's sponsorship of her work visa. Her current visa expires in 2013.
They long to have children, but say they are putting that off for now. Their preferred parenting roles - where Morgan, who works for a Jewish charity, would continue to work full-time and Verdugo would work part-time but stay home - is impossible as long as Verdugo's immigration status is attached to her job.
"I certainly always knew I wanted to be a mom. And Mar, if you see her with kids, she's like the baby whisperer," said Morgan, who is 36. "I guess more than anything we'd like to have the choice of when and how to raise children."
Still, they consider themselves fortunate because even the worst case scenario - Verdugo losing her work visa, and the couple having to relocate to Spain - would be tolerable. Spain is one of 11 countries that has legalized same-sex marriage and the couple has a network of friends and family in the country.
Another 14 countries also recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes, but not the United States because of DOMA.
For Richard Dennis and Jair Izquierdo, who have been together for six years, Obama's 2011 directive came too late. Izquierdo, a 35-year-old makeup artist from Peru, came to New York in 2001 on a tourist visa and stayed on.
Two years ago, Izquierdo arrived at what he thought was a bridal job, but it turned out to be a sting operation and he was arrested. Several months later, in late 2010, Izquierdo was deported and given a 10-year ban on returning to the country.
The two speak or text several times a day, but Dennis, who is 49, says the home they bought together in Jersey City feels empty. Dennis said he has considered joining Izquierdo in Peru, but said he is reluctant in part because his own command of Spanish is poor.
"It hasn't split us up," Dennis said. "Physically it has, but not emotionally."
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Doina Chiacu