June 23, 2011 at 5:52 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Immigration bill includes pro-gay language

New efforts emerged this week to address the inequity in U.S. immigration law preventing bi-national same-sex couples from staying together in the United States, although hurdles remain for each of the initiatives.

An LGBT immigration group called on the Obama administration to broaden a recent memo indicating when immigration officials can exercise discretion in deportation cases to include protections for gay bi-national couples. Meanwhile, comprehensive immigration reform legislation has been introduced in the Senate that includes a provision enabling gay Americans to sponsor their foreign same-sex partners for residency in the United States.

Under current immigration code, straight Americans can sponsor their spouses for residency in the United States through the green card application process if their spouses are foreign nationals. The same rights aren’t available to gay Americans. Consequently, foreign nationals who are in committed relationships with gay Americans may have to leave the country upon expiration of their temporary visas or face deportation.

On Monday, Immigration Equality called on U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement to clarify that the definition of ‘family’ and ‘spouse’ used in a June 17 memo to immigration officials include specifically bi-national same-sex couples.

The memo outlines cases in which immigration officials can exercise prosecutorial authority to include considerations such as an agency’s civil immigration enforcement priorities and whether a potential deportee is pursuing higher education or has served in the U.S. military.

However, the guidance makes no explicit mention of gay couples. It states that those with “family relationships” in the United States, or individuals with a “U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse” may be considered for discretion, but doesn’t spell out whether those terms are inclusive of same-sex couples.

Rachel Tiven, Immigration Equality’s executive director, said an explicit mention of same-sex bi-national couples is necessary to ensure they can receive protections under the prosecutorial authority available to immigration officials.

“Given the absence of any LGBT family recognition at the federal level, the decision not to explicitly include our spouses and partners in the ICE memo is striking,” Tiven said. “If the administration does support efforts to keep LGBT families together, it should tell its field offices as much. If it does not, it must explain why. In the interim, families are being torn apart and American citizens are being separated from their spouses. There is simply no government interest served in such draconian enforcement of our immigration laws.”

The request to expand the memo comes on the heels of letters that U.S. senators and members of Congress sent to the Obama administration asking for a moratorium on the deportations of foreign nationals who are legally recognized same-sex marriage with U.S. citizens and would be eligible for marriage-based green cards if not for the Defense of Marriage Act.

Even though President Obama announced in February that DOMA is unconstitutional, the administration has said in the response to these requests it would continue to enforce DOMA.

Gillian Christensen, an Immigration & Customs Enforcement spokesperson, similarly said her agency would continue to enforce DOMA in response to the most recent request from Immigration Equality.

“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,” Christensen said.

Christopher Nugent, who’s gay and co-chair of the American Bar Association’s rights of immigrants committee, was skeptical that Immigration & Customs Enforcement would make the change in accordance with Immigration Equality’s request.

“I am optimistic by nature but doubtful of such change with … with all the political battles going on here and with the economic woes,” Nugent said.

A new path has also been opened to address the hardships faced by bi-national same-sex couples through legislative means. On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced comprehensive immigration reform legislation that includes a family reunification provision for gay couples.

Menendez’ legislation, which seeks to enhance border security and offers a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, contains language similar to standalone legislation known as the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their same-sex partners for residency in the United States.

Late last year, Menendez introduced similar comprehensive legislation that also included a UAFA-like provision. The legislation also contains language similar to the DREAM Act, which would offer young, undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they obtain a college education or enlist in the U.S. military.

In a statement, Menendez said the legislation is a signal that lawmakers are “serious about fixing our broken immigration system.”

“We stand for a complete solution — a real solution — to end undocumented immigration and restore the rule of law,” Menendez said. “This is common-sense legislation that addresses the realities of the situation, stops the flow across our borders, and contributes to our economic recovery.”

Tiven said Immigration Equality stands behind Menendez and is “ready, willing and able to rally the LGBT community, and our families and allies” in the effort to pass his comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year.

“Today’s bill is supported by the top Democratic lawmakers in the Senate, including the chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee,” Tiven said. “We stand with them, and our allies in the LGBT and immigrant communities, in supporting reform that honors all families and offers an inclusive vision of America.”

Original co-sponsors for the legislation include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev), Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). The legislation has no Republican co-sponsors.

The chances of passing comprehensive immigration reform legislation would be challenging with Republicans in control of the House in the 112th Congress. However, the legislation may see movement — or at least a committee hearing — in the Democratic Senate.

During a news conference on Wednesday, Leahy, whose committee has jurisdiction over the bill, pledged to hold hearings on the legislation, but said the focus now is to introduce legislation to encourage discussion among other senators.

“We’ll see it when we get up enough support, it looks like the best time, we’ll start having these hearings and we will report,” Leahy said.

The White House expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform, but hasn’t articulated support for a UAFA-like provision as a component of the bill.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said via e-mail President Obama backs the passage of comprehensive immigration reform in response to an inquiry on the bill, but made no mention of the provision for same-sex couples in his statement.

“The president has spoken clearly about the need to fix the broken immigration system so that it meets America’s economic and security needs for the 21st century,” Inouye said. “We welcome Sen. Menendez’s leadership on this economic imperative, as well as any constructive effort to reach the bipartisan consensus necessary to pass a legislative solution in Congress at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Inouye didn’t respond to a subsequent request to comment on whether the president supports the UAFA-like provision in the legislation. The White House has spoken out against the separation of bi-national same-sex couples, but hasn’t explicitly endorsed any legislation to achieve that end.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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