Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is seeking to aid a married lesbian couple in his state by asking the Department of Homeland Security to take administrative action to ensure the foreign national in the relationship won’t be deported to Pakistan.
In a redacted letter dated March 27 and obtained last week by the Washington Blade, Kerry asks Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to hold in abeyance the I-130 marriage-based green card petition for the couple until the Defense of Marriage Act is overturned either by Congress or the courts.
“I know that you and I both believe that every family is worthy of recognition and respect, and that no family should be torn apart based on a discriminatory law,” Kerry writes. “Abeyance will allow this remarkable young couple to move forward with their dream of building a life together at home in Massachusetts.”
The couple is using their first names only, Gloria, a Pakistani national, and Jackie, who are both 24 and reside together in Beverly, Mass. The two met as roommates in college in 2008 and their shared Christian faith brought them closer. After falling in love, they married in Massachusetts in October.
But Gloria’s student visa expired after she could no longer afford tuition and had to stop attending school last year, ending her legal status in the country and putting her in a situation where she could be deported to Pakistan.
In March, Jackie filed a marriage-based green card petition to sponsor Gloria for residency in the United States. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services has yet to make a decision on the petition, but it will likely be denied unless it’s held in abeyance because DOMA prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
Their attorney, Lavi Soloway, co-founder of Stop the Deportations and partner at Masliah & Soloway, redacted their last names in the letter he gave to the Blade, saying he did so at their request out of concern for their safety and safety of family members overseas. He also declined to disclose the school they both attended.
Recalling that the Obama administration has determined DOMA was unconstitutional and stopped defending the anti-gay law in court, Kerry writes this announcement last year left many same-sex couples “wondering how that will apply to their pending cases” and enables an opportunity for action.
“Among those harmed by the discrimination enshrined in law by DOMA are many of my constituents in Massachusetts who face separation from husbands, wives, grandparents, grandchildren, extended family, colleagues and community,” the senator says.
Kerry writes that the case of Gloria and Jackie “clearly justifies” action because of the potentially harsh treatment Gloria would face if sent back to Pakistan. Homosexuality is a crime punishable by jail time there and Christians have been known to face persecution in the country.
“She is certain that if she is forced to return to Pakistan, her life will be in danger, not only because of her sexual orientation and her marriage to a United States citizen, but for religious reasons as well,” Kerry writes.
It’s not the first time Kerry has asked the Obama administration to take action to stop the separation of bi-national same-sex couples. In April 2011, Kerry led a group of 12 senators who signed a letter to Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security asking that the marriage-based green card petitions for these couples be held in abeyance.
In a phone interview, Gloria said she and her spouse “feel very frustrated” they face this situation that wouldn’t be before them if they were an opposite-sex couple. She said she believes the effort will be worthwhile if “some positive outcome could come out of all this work that we’re putting into it.”
Additionally, Gloria said she dreads the prospect of having to return to Pakistan and face persecution because of her religious beliefs and sexual orientation.
“That would be just a devastating situation,” Gloria said. “We don’t even want to think about it. We have built our lives together here in America and our home is here. Our friends and family, and everything that we’ve built together is here.”
In a statement, Jackie also expressed frustration that DOMA precludes her from protecting her spouse and that the Obama administration hasn’t yet taken action to protect married bi-national couples.
“It hurts, as an American, to think that my government causes me and my wife so much distress by allowing DOMA to do so much harm,” Jackie said. “It is not what I expected of President Obama; I expected more. My wife and I met in college over three and half years [ago] and plan to continue building our lives together. Part of our future will now be this fight for full equality.”
Jackie added that coming out publicly with their story wasn’t an easy decision because they fear it may mean backlash for Gloria’s family in Pakistan — as well as for Gloria if she’s forced to return to the country.
“But we will not stand by helpless while our marriage is treated as nothing by the federal government,” Jackie said. “I know that our president in his heart does not want to do harm to our marriage, and I am disappointed that he’s letting this happen when he has the power to stop it.”
Soloway said the president’s opposition to DOMA should be “matched with deeds,” and that halting the denial of marriage-based green card petitions would be consistent with the administration’s stated belief that same-sex couples shouldn’t be forced to make a choice between staying together and staying in the country.
“The president has an opportunity to develop policy that protects all LGBT families impacted by DOMA,” Soloway said. “He must now act to save Jackie and Gloria and thousands of lesbian and gay bi-national couples who, just like them, want nothing more than to be able to live their lives in peace.”
LGBT rights supporters have repeatedly asked the Obama administration to hold the marriage-based green cards for bi-national same-sex couples in abeyance on several occasions, and each time, officials have responded that they’ll continue to enforce DOMA while it’s on the books.
According to The Advocate, LGBT groups met with White House officials in January to discuss the possibility of putting the green cards in abeyance and administration officials told the advocates that such action wouldn’t be taken.
Peter Boogard, a DHS spokesperson, expressed a similar sentiment when asked by the Blade to comment on the Kerry letter.
“DHS responds directly to members of Congress, not through the media,” Boogard said. “Pursuant to the attorney general’s guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the executive branch, including 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.”
While the administration hasn’t taken action to hold the marriage-based green card applications in abeyance, it has said it would include bi-national same-sex couples as part of an effort announced in August to take low-priority cases out of the deportation pipeline by granting them prosecutorial discretion.
The criteria for being taken out of the deportation pipeline include a person’s ties and contributions to their community and family relationships, and administration officials have said these criteria are inclusive of LGBT families and same-sex couples. An informed source said individuals whose I-130 is denied because of DOMA typically don’t receive a notice to appear for deportation hearings in court, unless there are additional derogatory factors.
But Soloway said whether Gloria will be placed into deportation proceedings is hardly the point if her green card application is denied because she’s “vulnerable to deportation every day.”
“She can be placed into proceedings simply because her immigration status as a foreign student has lapsed,” Soloway said. “Her school was required to report her to Immigration Services when she was no longer enrolled as a student. Every night, Jackie and Gloria go to sleep not knowing if their luck will run out. Will tomorrow be the day on which Gloria comes into contact with an overzealous police officer who stops and questions her and takes her into custody when her immigration status is discovered?”
Soloway also said holding the green card application in abeyance is the only way for Gloria to remain in legal status to enable her to hold a job or maintain a valid driver’s license.
“She cannot support herself and build a stable and secure future with Jackie as any other married couple would,” Soloway said. “She is trapped and can never leave the country because if she does she will be prohibited from returning. This untenable situation is the result of DOMA, and would be mitigated if their green card case were simply held in abeyance.”