A U.S. immigration judge on Friday halted deportation proceedings for a Venezuelan national facing expulsion from the country because of the Defense of Marriage Act in part because of a recently issued order from the Justice Department interceding in a related case.
Judge Alberto Riefkohl granted an adjournment until Dec. 16 in the case Henry Velandia, a salsa dancer who’s in a legal same-sex marriage and faces deportation to Venezuela. The judge, who heard the case in a Newark, N.J., court, could have ordered deportation on the date of the hearing and barred Velandia from returning to the United States for 10 years.
Josh Vandiver, Velandia’s spouse, had filed an I-130 marriage-based green card petition for Velandia, which was denied in January on the sole basis of DOMA. After President Obama announced in February that he would no longer defend DOMA in court because he determined the law was unconstitutional, Vandiver re-filed the petition, which remains pending with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services.
Lavi Soloway, an attorney with Masliah & Soloway PC in New York who’s handling Velandia’s case, said the judge made his decision on the basis that Vandiver’s marriage-based green card petition is still pending and because of a recent decision by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a related immigration case.
On Thursday, Holder issued an order to vacate for another bi-national same-sex couple in New Jersey seeking recognition of their civil union for immigration purposes, halting the potential deportation and the separation of this couple.
“Today we have won an important victory by stopping the deportation of Henry Velandia,” Soloway said. “The Immigration Judge has demonstrated that it is appropriate to proceed with caution when a marriage-based green card petition is pending precisely because the law and policy impacting lesbian and gay bi-national couples is in a state of flux. The Immigration Judge has acted to protect Josh and Henry from being torn apart at a time when new developments suggest that potential solutions for bi-national same-sex couples may be on the horizon.”
According to Soloway. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Assistant Chief Counsel David Cheng, who’s prosecuting the case on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, agreed to the adjournment.
“The attorney felt that it was appropriate to proceed with caution and give this process a chance to play out, and, if that’s the case, then they changed their position and they agree with the judge,” Soloway said. “So they were very cooperative.”
In a statement, Vandiver said the judge “made the right decision” by postponing these proceedings and stopping, at least temporarily, Velandia’s deportation.
“We are breathing a sigh of relief that we will be able to live in peace for a few more months, now that the immediate threat of deportation has been removed,” Vandiver said. “We treasure every day we have together. But couples like us are still being torn apart every day. Every day, spouses of gay and lesbian Americans are facing deportation and denied access to green cards only because of the Defense of Marriage Act.”
Robin McGehee, director of GetEQUAL, which rallied at the Newark court in support of Velandia along with other LGBT groups, said Velandia and Vandiver’s friends are “all certainly breathing a sigh of relief” in the wake of the decision and noted the couple has “a bit of time to re-group, re-connect, and re-strategize about how to move forward.”
“It’s unbelievable that couples like Henry and Josh are being forced to go through the emotional and financial stress of this process, while straight couples experience nothing of the sort — we’re committed to standing beside this couple, and the tens of thousands of other same-sex bi-national couples who are facing similar scenarios across the country,” McGehee said.
Soloway noted the judge’s action is only temporary reprieve for Velandia and called on the Obama administration to take action to prevent the deportations of foreign nationals in same-sex marriages until a final decision is made on the constitutionality of DOMA.
“The administration must act now to institute a moratorium on all deportations of spouses of gay and lesbian Americans to ensure that all same-sex bi-national couples are protected until the fate of DOMA is determined by Congress or the Supreme Court,” Soloway said.
Questions still remain about whether Velandia will be able to remain in the United States following the hearing in December. Soloway said the implications of the attorney general’s order and possible action from the Obama administration are still unclear.
“We simply don’t know what the scenario will be come December,” Soloway said. “We are hopeful that what we are seeing is evidence that the administration understands the crisis that bi-national couples are facing and that they’re looking for ways to develop remedies and implement them.”