August 24, 2011 at 4:41 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Bi-national couples await relief under Obama policy change

Anton Tanumihardja (left) and Brian Andersen (photo courtesy of Andersen)

Brian Andersen is nervously awaiting a phone call from U.S. immigration officials.

Andersen, an American citizen who married his spouse, Anton Tanumihardja, an Indonesian national, in D.C. in June, hopes that U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement will deem the deportation proceedings against Tanumihardja to be a low priority and take him out of the pipeline for potential separation from the country.

“To be a little cliche, it really would feel like a burden would be lifted from our shoulders,” Andersen said. “Of course I do know in the back of my mind, that certainly isn’t the end of the road, but it would certainly take the immediate threat away of the government tearing my spouse away from me.”


Such an opportunity is possible for Andersen and Tanumihardja thanks to new guidance that the Obama administration unveiled last week in immigration policy. In a letter to the Senate, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano last week indicated that authorities will conduct a case-by-case review of the approximately 300,000 undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation to determine which cases are high priority and low priority for separation from the country.

Those who have been convicted of crimes or pose a security risk will be a higher priority for deportation, while those who are deemed lower priority will be taken out of the pipeline. Administration officials will weigh a person’s ties and contributions to the community and family relationships. The Obama administration has said these criteria are inclusive of LGBT families and same-sex couples.

Tanumihardja has lived in the United States since 2002 and has sought residency in the United States through the asylum process. After losing his bid for residency through this process, he was served with a final deportation order and was set for separation on Feb. 14. However, immigration officials postponed the deportation temporarily and Tanumihardja must continue to check in with ICE officials. At any time, the deportation office can set a date for his separation from the country.

Andersen, who lives in Philadelphia with his spouse, said a call from ICE removing Tanumihardja from proceedings would provide immediate relief until action is taken to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

“It doesn’t solve the larger issue of the discrimination of the Defense of Marriage Act, and still wouldn’t allow me to sponsor Anton for permanent residence, but it is a step in the right direction and would allow us the peace of mind knowing we can stay and continue to fight together for full marriage equality,” Andersen said.

Under current immigration law, 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 because the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits federal recognition of same-sex unions, which are only legal in six states and D.C.

Consequently, foreign nationals who are in committed relationships with gay Americans may have to leave the United States or face deportation — which could mean separation from their partner — if these foreign nationals are discovered to be undocumented or upon expiration of their temporary visas. The new policy guidance offers an opportunity for the Obama administration to cancel the deportation of these foreign nationals, enabling them to remain in the country with their partners.

Lavi Soloway, founder of Stop the Deportations and an immigration lawyer who handles deportation cases for same-sex couples, said Napalitano’s guidance demonstrates the Obama administration is offering “a greater degree of sensitivity” to LGBT families.

“Those individuals who are facing deportation, but who are married to a gay or lesbian American citizen have a more receptive Department of Homeland Security to communicate their request for prosecutorial discretion than perhaps a few weeks ago,” Soloway said.

The change builds off an existing June 17 memo from the Department of Homeland Security enabling immigration officials to exercise discretion in deportation cases that aren’t deemed high priority. Soloway said the guidelines now are still the same as when this earlier memo was issued, but the administration has signaled “an aggressive interest in setting aside low priority cases, and that would include cases involving LGBT families.”

But Soloway noted that the Obama administration has offered no timeline for when officials will complete the removal of foreign nationals in same-sex marriage from the deportation pipeline, nor whether this change would mean an end to all DOMA-related deportations.

“We don’t know how long it will take for the government to work through its pipeline of cases, and so any bi-national couples who are at risk of being torn apart through deportation should be advocating for themselves and should be presenting the evidence and making the argument to deportation officers or prosecutors,” Soloway said.

Gillian Christensen, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, responded to the Blade’s request to comment on timing with the following statement.

“ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States,” Christensen said. “The agency exercises prosecutorial discretion, on a case by case basis, as necessary to focus resources on these priorities.”

One couple that had been in deportation proceedings has already found relief after Napolitano issued the new guidance. Alex Benshimol and Douglas Gentry, a married gay bi-national couple in California, learned on Saturday that ICE dropped proceedings against Benshimol, a Venezuelan native.

In a statement, Gentry said the decision by ICE to exercise prosecutorial discretion and take Benshimol out of the deportation pipeline, effectively taking him out of danger, is “extremely encouraging.”

“This should bring hope to so many couples in our situation,” Gentry said. “As happy as Alex is, he’s still uncertain. We will still have to fight for full equality because DOMA prevents me from petitioning for his green card. But the constant fear of exile or separation is over, and for that we’re very grateful.”

The case marks the second time this year that ICE has dropped deportation proceedings against a same-sex couple. In July, immigration officials discontinued proceedings against Henry Velandia, a gay Venezuelan national, who lives in New Jersey with his spouse, Josh Vandiver.

Sujey Pando (right) and her spouse Violeta (photo courtesy Lavi Soloway)

Another couple that could receive a call from ICE and obtain relief is Sujey and Violeta Pando. The Denver, Colo, couple, who have been together five years and married last year in Iowa, received media attention last week after an immigration judge decided to postpone deportation proceedings against Sujey, a Mexican national, until January.

Violeta told the Blade that a phone call from ICE informing the couple that Sujey would be taken out of the pipeline for deportation would make them “so happy there’d be no words to describe the feeling.”

“I think there’s a possibility because under Secretary Napolitano’s memo, it listed some categories, and Sujey fits all those categories,” Violeta said. “So, I don’t see why not, she has ties to the community, she’s married to me, she’s not a criminal.”

Growing up in Mexico, Sujey was ostracized by her family for being a tom-boy and says she was raped and beaten growing up. At the age of 16, she was brought into the United States. Her deportation troubles started in 2008, when she was arrested after a traffic violation and taken to jail. ICE was notified and deportation proceedings started against her.

The specter of deportation, Violeta said, still concerns the couple and they don’t know what action they’d take if a deportation was ordered against Sujey.

“We try not to look at that as an option,” Violeta said. “I don’t know what I would do. We don’t look at that as an option, we need to fight for this. It all goes back to DOMA. So, no, not an option.”

But the new guidance would only affect gay foreign nationals who are currently facing deportation proceedings. Gay foreign nationals in same-sex relationships who are seeking legal status and protections, but haven’t yet had deportation proceedings started against them, aren’t affected the Obama administration’s change.

One such bi-national same-sex couple is Bradford Wells, a U.S. citizen, and Anthony John Makk, an Australian national. The San Francisco couple were married in Massachusetts seven years ago and have lived together 19 years. Wells and Makk came into public view earlier this month after the San Francisco Chronicle profiled them and reported that U.S. Customs & Immigration Enforcement on July 26 denied Makk a marriage-based green card for residency on the basis of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Makk is the primary caregiver for Wells, who’s living with AIDS. Wells told the Blade he’d be faced with significant challenges in continuing to care for himself should the U.S. government order deportation of his spouse.

“If he was deported, I’d be here all alone, I wouldn’t have anyone to assist me,” Wells said. “I would find it impossible to take care of all the things I would need to take care of to manage my day-to-day life. I would not be able to do everything I have to do.”

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, which is handing Wells and Makk’s case, said their story underscores the fact that same-sex immigrant families need earlier intervention and a more permanent solution to put them on equal legal footing with opposite-sex couples.

“While the administration’s decision to intervene  and halt deportation proceedings is a welcome step in the right direction, our government should not be forcing couples to face a worst-case scenario in order to receive even minimal relief,” Ralls said.

To ensure greater protection, Ralls said the Obama administration should implement a policy of holding spousal applications for married bi-national same-sex couples until either the courts or Congress lift DOMA from the books.

“That allows more families to maintain legal status, and legal protections, which is a far better option than waiting until deportation orders are issued and families have been forced out of status,” Ralls said. “The administration has offered to loosen the noose in a last-minute reprieve for some families. Instead, they should be stepping up, and offering help, before families are faced with such dire circumstances.”

Immigration Equality on Wednesday appealed the denial of the marriage-based green card to U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services. The appeal gives him no legal status while pending, but if granted, would then place him back in legal status. Ralls said an attempt to remove him while the appeal is pending would be unusual because a successful appeal would permit him to remain in the United States legally.

Even though the policy change wouldn’t directly impact the San Francisco couple, Wells said he thinks the more rigorous attention that bi-national same-sex couples would receive under the case-by-case examination of deportation proceedings makes him feel “there could be hope at the very end of the road.”

“There is a possibility that if we find ourselves at the very end of the road that he may get deferred action and they won’t actually put him on a plane and fly him back to Australia, but we’re not there yet and I’m trying to get some relief before we get there,” Wells said.

NOTE: This article has been updated.

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

  • As the American half of one of these couples, I can attest to how stressful it is to stay within the current letter of the law and live our lives a few months at a time and then be separated for many, many months. It’s an incredible stress mentally, emotionally, physically, and financially. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

    • Half of a binational couple

      Me and my partner, we’re experiencing the same thing. We haven’t seen each other for the past 5 months and almost 2 weeks, since I left Paris, one day before he did. We tried everything is too much of a nightmare. He’s gonna be in my country in like 9 days, so it’s gonna be almost 6 months since we haven’t seen each other. Americans can’t stay in a European country for more than 90 days without having to leave to another country and then return after 90 days. I mean, I can’t get to US and he can’t stay in Europe. We have 2 years together and we traveled to so many countries together, we even stayed in my home country for 3 months. I just want us to be like a normal couple without living in fear, pain and stress, without having to wake up in the middle of the night crying. Sometimes, I start crying so much. Like just now, when I think so much about it. I feel like a shadow when I’m not with him. He’s my half and he’s all I want in this life, why can’t we have the right to be together? We’re comitted to each other more than so many other couples. We just want to be together and not live in fear anymore.

  • @ Will
    As one half of a binational couple I understand your pain. The stress from all this has made me physically ill, depressed almost all the time and fearful that my partner and I will never be able to live like a normal couple. It is time that the President and his administration do something beyond holding those in deportations proceedings in abeyance(though I fully support this, and applaud it). It is absolutely unfair for our country to say ‘do it legally and get in line’ and then not produce a line for us to get in!

    Stay strong Will-I know we’ll prevail. I just hope I’m around to live it.

  • Very nice, complete article, Chris. Thanks. I too feel the daily stress of trying to remain together with my foreign partner and stay legal. I have nightmares over this. Holding green card applications in abeyance for legally married gay couples while DOMA is decided in the courts should be the next step the administration takes. There is a clear precedent here — when the law for widowed straight people was in flux, the government did that exact thing for them until the law became clear or finalized. Mr. President, please do it for us LGBT married folks too.

  • Half of a binational couple

    The mentally and physically stress, we’re dealing with, it’s more than a normal person can take.

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