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Between the time she met her partner online and when the woman returned home to France more than three years later, Cathy DuPuis explored every possible type of immigration visa in a race against time to keep them together.

A product manager at American Seafoods in Seattle, DuPuis applied to sponsor her partner for an employment visa for teaching French to DuPuis. They asked U.S. Sen. Patty Murray for a private bill, tried the immigration lottery and pursued a little-known avenue for foreigners with exceptional talent.

The women knew that for them, marriage was not a solution — that while an American marrying a foreign national offers the surest path to legal status for straight couples, that same benefit is closed to gay people because the federal government disregards their unions for benefit purposes.

In a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, attorneys representing the interests of gays and lesbians will argue that such unequal treatment under the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the constitutional rights of gay couples.

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Under DOMA, hundreds of federal benefits linked to everything from Social Security to immigration are available to straight married couples but denied those in same-sex unions, including an untold number here in Washington state.

Those defending the law argue that it advances the goal of preserving traditional marriage in this country, serving as a disincentive for states seeking to legalize same-sex marriage. They’ll urge the high court to allow the democratic process around it to continue.

The previous day, the justices will hear arguments on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which overturned same-sex marriage there in 2008.

Rulings are expected this summer and could change how marriage is recognized in this country.

“The sooner all this goes away and gay people can finally sponsor those they love for a green card, the sooner my confidence in this process will be restored,” DuPuis said.

Even a visa not enough

An estimated 24,700 Americans are in relationships with noncitizen foreign-born partners. And many spend small fortunes looking for ways to stay together in this country.

“Sometimes it requires finances to maintain two residences — one in the U.S. and one abroad, or even, barring that, the finances to travel internationally,” said Steve Ralls, spokesman for Immigration Equality, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for the LGBT community on immigration issues.

“It’s expensive, emotionally devastating and even for couples fortunate to find a visa, there’s often no long-term guarantee.”

In fact, finding a permanent solution through a visa can get tricky because most visas — student, visitor and some employment-based ones — are temporary in nature, typically granted on the grounds that the applicant’s intent is not to remain in the U.S. permanently.

Any number of actions a foreigner here may take — including marrying an American — can trigger a red flag for authorities that the person’s intent is to stay.

“We were two rational actors in this, playing by all the rules — rules that are often contradictory and working at cross purposes to one another,” DuPuis said.

Trying every option

The two women met online in April 2007 and their relationship developed quickly. They’d hoped to one day marry — a wedding in France, complete with a pièce montée, a French wedding cake.

DuPuis became pregnant that October, and in January they moved into a house she’d bought in West Seattle.

She didn’t realize then that she was starting an impossible three-year race against time to keep her relationship intact.

“I didn’t know any of this immigration stuff when we first started dating,” she said.

Her partner had first visited the U.S. as a high-school exchange student, and came back in 1999 to obtain a master’s degree.

In 2006, she was teaching French at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., when the Bellevue School District hired her as a French teacher on an H-1B visa. Both women believed the district would sponsor her for a green card, though district officials say they can’t confirm any such promise.

But when the economy tanked the following year, many Americans who lost their jobs went into teaching and “she became the low man on the totem pole,” DuPuis said. “We began to sense the political mood was shifting.”

not only were her hopes of a green card dashed, she no longer had enough time to get the certification she needed to continue teaching.

“All of a sudden, we were facing an expiration date,” DuPuis said. “We were thinking we could ride it out until there was a crack in DOMA or something else came along, and I could sponsor her for a family visa.”

They debated extensively about moving to France, Belgium, the U.K. or Canada — but eventually rejected those options as untenable.

DuPuis began an international trading business through which her partner could pursue an investor visa, but that effort eventually fizzled.

DuPuis’ own application to sponsor the woman for an H-1B visa as a personal French teacher for herself was rejected because the job was one for a tutor, which doesn’t need a college degree, as is required for H-1B candidates.

Citing the woman’s contributions to a college-level French textbook used in universities across the country, they also sought what’s known as a national interest waiver, available to those who make exceptional contributions in the country.

They lobbied Sen. Murray for a private bill — a rare legislative option that benefits a particular individual — and they even considered pursuing a type of visa that involved training aboard a fishing vessel in Alaska.

And each year, they applied for the diversity visa, the so-called immigration lottery through which the government grants 55,000 green cards a year.

“I went through the alphabet” of visas, DuPuis said. “We tried to follow all the rules; they just weren’t meant for gay people.”

Karol Brown, a Seattle immigration attorney whom DuPuis hired near the end, said DuPuis “literally tried everything.”

“When you have a couple who’s been denied the opportunity to do it the usual way … they find themselves having to twist the law and the circumstances they’re in to get a fit. Often the law is not flexible enough to accommodate the reality of people’s lives.”

In the end, the relationship between the women deteriorated and in December 2010, DuPuis’ partner returned to France.

“She loved this country; always used to say ‘I was born American,’ ” DuPuis said.

“Now she’s had to rebuild her life over there.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or On Twitter @turnbullL.

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