An order to vacate from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder halting the deportation of a foreign national in a civil union may be sign of hope for bi-national same-sex couples in the United States who are facing separation.
In the decision, dated April 26, Holder remands back to the Board of Immigration Appeals the case of Paul Wilson Dorman — a New Jersey man who’s apparently seeking residency in the United States through his partner — to reassess a previous petition that was denied based on the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The order was made public Thursday.
“In the exercise of my review authority under that regulation, and upon consideration of the record in this case, I direct that the order of the Board be vacated and that this matter be remanded to the Board to make such findings as may be necessary to determine whether and how the constitutionality of DOMA is presented in this case,” Holder writes.
Holder asks the Board of Immigration Appeals to clarify questions not addressed in the initial proceeding, such whether the petitioner’s civil union with his partner makes him eligible as a “spouse” under New Jersey law and the Immigration and Nationality Act as well as whether Dorman can establish exceptional and unusual hardship to qualify for relief.
The details of the Dorman case weren’t immediately known, such when his partner filed the petition, when the Board of Immigration appeals initially rejected the application or when any deportation as a result of the case is expected to proceed. Nor was it clear why Holder decided to intervene in this case when other foreign nationals in same-sex relationships are faced with potential deportation.
Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokesperson, said the action isn’t the first time in history that an attorney general has remanded a case back to Board of Immigration Appeals for reconsideration.
“By way of history, over the years, attorneys general in several administrations have exercised their review authority in immigration cases,” Schmaler said. “Since 1996, attorneys general have reviewed 30 cases involving a variety of immigration law issues.”
Lavi Soloway, an attorney with Masliah & Soloway PC in New York who handles immigration cases, said the order from Holder could be a sign that the Obama administration is looking for a way to help same-sex bi-national couples who are barred from the marriage-based immigration process because of DOMA.
“There isn’t yet a final decision that could be applicable, but on the other hand, the action by the attorney general to vacate the decision would now suggest that it would be appropriate to adjourn any deportation proceedings where there are similar issues at stake,” Soloway said.
Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said the implications of the order to vacate remains unclear, but could indicate that the Obama administration to moving to intercede on their behalf.
“It appears to be a positive first step that, I think, is based at least in part on the congressional pressure that has been placed on DOJ around DOMA and the issue of bi-national couples,” Ralls said.
Ralls was referring to letters that member of Congress sent to the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security urging officials to stop the deportations of foreign nationals in legally recognized same-sex marriages. Last month, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and 11 other senators in one letter, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and 47 other House members in another letter, asked the Obama administration to make the change.
“I think it’s a positive sign that the attorney general himself decided to intervene to take this step,” Ralls continued. “We’re hopeful that it will then be replicated in other cases for couples who are facing separation, but I think it’s a little too early to know for sure that’s going to be the case.”
Soloway, who’s representing another bi-national same-sex couple who are legally married and also living in New Jersey, said he plans to use the order to help defend his clients who face possible separation because of DOMA.
Josh Vandiver, a U.S. citizen, and Henry Velandia, a professional dancer from Venezuela, were legally married in Connecticut last year. Velandia was placed into removal proceedings in 2009 when his employment-based immigration case was denied. Last summer, Vandiver filed an I-130 marriage-based green card petition for Velandia, but it was denied in January on the sole basis of DOMA.
On Friday, Velandia is set to appear in court for a final hearing before an immigration judge who will decide whether to deport him. If deportation is ordered, Velandia will be barred from returning to the United States for the next 10 years.
On the day of the court proceedings, various grassroots-based LGBT advocacy groups — including Courage Campaign, GetEQUAL, Garden State Equality, and the Immigration Equality Action Fund — plan to rally at the Newark Immigration Court to call on Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to halt deportations of foreign nationals in legal same-same-sex marriages, such as the separation Vandiver and Velandia may be facing.
Soloway said he intends to bring the Holder order to the attention of the judge in an attempt to adjourn proceedings on any decision to deport Velandia.
“The implication could be that we stop, or at least slow down, deportation proceedings in many, if not most, of the lesbian and gay couples, like Josh and Henry — and that’s why tomorrow we’re going to go into court and ask the judge to do just that on the basis of the attorney general’s action here today,” Soloway said.