President Obama’s action last week protecting many young, undocumented immigrants from deportation has won praise in progressive circles — including among LGBT advocates — but the move raises a question: Can the LGBT community now expect that the previously denied administrative actions they’ve been seeking will come to fruition?
On Friday, the Obama administration announced that an estimated 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States will be considered for relief from removal from the country if they meet certain criteria. Among the criteria is whether the person in question has a college education or has served in the military. Those criteria would have protected such immigrants from deportation had Congress passed the DREAM Act.
During remarks in the White House Rose Garden, Obama announced the policy change and said it was a means to keep talented people in the United States.
“As I said in my speech on the economy yesterday, it makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans — they’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country — to expel these young people who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians,” Obama said.
Excitement among immigration rights advocates ensued and hundreds of young people swarmed the White House to rally in support of the president’s action. And this praise was echoed by LGBT rights advocates.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, was among those who praised the move.
“We applaud the Obama administration for taking this monumental and inspiring step,” Carey said. “It shows true leadership. It is heartening to know that hundreds of thousands of young people will no longer have to live in daily fear of being forced out of the country, away from the life and dreams they have built.”
But the policy change marks a turnabout for the administration, which had previously stated it wanted legislative action on the DREAM Act as opposed to pursuing executive action.
In September remarks before the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual gala, Obama talked about wanting Congress to take action on the DREAM Act
“I wish I had a magic wand and could make this all happen on my own,” Obama said. “There are times where — until Nancy Pelosi is speaker again — I’d like to work my way around Congress. But the fact is, even as we work towards a day when I can sign an immigration bill, we’ve got laws on the books that have to be upheld.”
To be fair, Obama didn’t completely rule out executive action on the DREAM Act at the gala. Saying “how we enforce those laws is also important,” the president noted the Department of Homeland Security is taking common-sense steps for immigration enforcement.
But the remarks should ring a bell. They’re along the lines of similar talking points that administration officials have expressed in regard to actions sought by the LGBT community. Now that the administration has taken action to help young, undocumented immigrants, will it reconsider its position on those other actions?
Perhaps the most high-profile outstanding request of the administration is an executive order requiring contractors doing business with the federal government to have employment non-discrimination policies inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. In April, the White House announced it wouldn’t take such action at this time and was opting instead for a legislative solution.
Felipe Matos, GetEQUAL’s national field director and a gay, undocumented immigrant, said last week following the announcement that he’s happy with Obama’s action, but wants to see more efforts on employment non-discrimination.
“I’m still reeling from the news and overjoyed by the announcement — but my heart has just enough room in it for another executive order,” Matos said. “It’s my hope that President Obama will make today especially historic by signing another executive order — one that will guarantee that I have the right to work freely and openly as an immigrant, but also as a gay American.”
Questions about why Obama chose to take administrative action on the immigration issue and not on the issue of LGBT workplace discrimination were asked even in Republican circles.
Richard Grenell, who’s gay and was briefly a foreign policy spokesperson for the Romney campaign, criticized Obama following the immigration announcement — reiterating a previously stated belief that Obama is playing politics with the LGBT community.
“President Obama obviously made a calculated political move to NOT give an executive order for ENDA,” Grenell said in an email to the Blade. “It’s painfully evident that the president doesn’t think gays are equal, he just thinks they are his solid and sure voting bloc and will treat us in raw political terms. Both parties, sadly, play politics with an issue that is about equality.”
For his part, Romney is facing his own political problems as a result of the DREAM Act administrative action. While taking a hard line on immigration during the Republican primary and saying he’d veto the DREAM Act, Romney has refused to say following Obama’s move whether he’d undo the action if elected president.
Despite these calls, the administration hasn’t changed its line on LGBT employment non-discrimination policy in the wake of the immigration policy.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said nothing has changed in the administration’s position, reiterating that the directive won’t happen “at this time.”
“As has been previously stated, while it is not our usual practice to discuss executive orders that may or may not be under consideration, an order on LGBT non-discrimination for federal contractors will not be issued at this time,” Inouye said.
Another request of the administration is meant to protect bi-national same-sex couples from separation. Straight Americans can marry their foreign spouses to protect from deportations, but the same option isn’t available to gay Americans because of DOMA.
LGBT immigration rights groups have been asking the Department of Homeland Security to hold in abeyance the marriage-based green card applications for foreign nationals in same-sex relationships. The administration has said consistently in response to requests for this action that it plans to continue to enforce DOMA while it’s on the books.
Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, called the immigration announcement “great news for our country” and said it would protect gay foreign nationals in same-sex couples if they qualify for relief under the DREAM Act. Still, she called for additional action.
“No person should face forcible separation from their families, regardless of their age,” Tiven said. “That is why the White House should follow today’s announcement with a proposal to extend that same relief to immigrants with U.S.-citizen partners and spouses across the board. Keeping families together is good policy, and all families, including those that are LGBT, should have the support of the president in the form of a similar policy.”
Lavi Soloway, co-founder of Stop the Deportations, said he celebrates the move but wants additional action from the administration for bi-national couples in the wake of decisions from six federal courts finding DOMA unconstitutional.
“Every day these couples worry that they will be torn apart or forced into exile in order to stay together,” Soloway said. “This administration has said that denying green cards to the spouses of gay and lesbian Americans is a violation of the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution, but has not taken the steps necessary to mitigate the discriminatory impact of DOMA in this area.”
The actions that Soloway is seeking are: ordering an immediate moratorium on deportations of the foreign partners of gay Americans; providing temporary parole to the partners, spouses and children of gay Americans who are stuck outside the United States so that these families can be reunited; and putting on hold all “green card” petitions filed by gay Americans for their spouses.
Peter Boogard, a DHS spokesperson, reiterated that it will continue to enforce DOMA when asked about holding marriage-based green cards in abeyance.
“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 a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional,” Boogard said.
But recent news may be an indication that the Obama administration is changing its tune. In recent weeks, the Board of Immigration Appeals has rejected the denial of green card petitions issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the cases filed by four married, gay couples who live in in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Canada.
In all cases, the BIA ordered the USCIS to conduct further inquiry to determine if these marriages are legally valid and whether if not for DOMA, the spouse would qualify for a green card.
In one case, the ruling re-opened removal proceedings for the spouse of a gay American who is facing an outstanding deportation order. According to Soloway, who’s handling the cases, the Board of Immigration Appeals has never before re-opened removal proceedings or remanded green card petitions back to USCIS after denials based solely on DOMA.
The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
LGBT advocates say they’ll continue to press forward. Speaking with the Washington Blade earlier this week, Chad Griffin, the new president of the Human Rights Campaign, commended Obama for taking action on immigration and said HRC will push forward when asked about these LGBT-related issues.
“HRC has been supportive of the DREAM Act for a long time,” Griffin said. “The president made an important step recently in the last week in what he announced and we have more to accomplish on some things that HRC will continue to voice our concern on.”