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Despite assurances, LGBT advocates want more for bi-national couples

CHRIS JOHNSON | Washington Blade
Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The issue of keeping married bi-national gay couples together in the United States is receiving fresh attention as LGBT advocates call for more action beyond a recent statement from the Department of Homeland Security saying being in a same-sex marriage is a factor in determining whether a potential deportee should be able to stay in the country.

On Thursday, Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesperson, affirmed that the Obama administration would examine whether an individual is in a same-sex marriage when deciding to exercise prosecutorial discretion in a deportation for an undocumented immigrant.

“Pursuant to the Attorney General’s guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the Department of Homeland Security will continue to enforce it unless and until Congress repeals it, or there is a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional,” Boogaard said.

“However, when exercising prosecutorial discretion in enforcement matters, DHS looks at the totality of the circumstances presented in individual cases, including whether an individual has close family ties to the United States as demonstrated by his or her same-sex marriage or other longstanding relationship to a United States citizen.”

Boogaard’s statement marks the first time the Obama administration has said on the record it will factor in whether someone is in a same-sex marriage when determining whether to exercise prosecutorial discretion in a deportation case.

The administration previously communicated in August 2011 that it would “consider LGBT families” under a policy in which officials would examine on a case-by-case basis the potential deportations of about 300,000 undocumented immigrants, but that was only said without attribution. The new statement also changes “LGBT families” to “same-sex marriage.”

Additionally, the words mark one of the few times that the Obama administration has said it would recognize married same-sex couples even though DOMA, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, remains on the books.

Last year, the Justice Department announced it would allow married same-sex couples to file jointly for bankruptcy; the Office of Personnel Management gave U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals employee Karen Golinski health benefits for her same-sex spouse, but both of those decisions were more limited in scope and the result of court orders.

The DHS statement comes in response to a letter that 84 House Democrats signed calling for DHS to issue guidance for providing prosecutorial discretion for married bi-national same-sex couples in situations where the foreign national in the relationship is undocumented and possibly in danger of deportation.

Straight Americans can sponsor their spouses for residency in the United States through a marriage-based green card application, but that option isn’t available to gay Americans because of DOMA.

In a letter dated Aug. 3, the signers — who include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) — ask for ”written field guidance or a memorandum” indicating DHS will “consider LGBT family ties as a positive factor for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.” It’s not the first time such a letter has been sent. Last year, 69 House Democrats sent a letter to DHS calling for similar action.

It’s not the first time such a letter has been sent. Last year, 69 House Democrats sent a letter to DHS calling for similar action.

Despite the new statement from DHS, those behind the letter say they want more and a response from a DHS spokesperson doesn’t take the place of written guidance. Some behind the letter say the statement from DHS reflects a policy that is already understood to be in place.

Nadler, sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States, was among those saying more is necessary.

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