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Bi-national couples await relief under Obama policy change

New hope, as immigration enforcement shifts focus

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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.”

MORE IN THE BLADE: DHS GUIDANCE ON IMMIGRATION OMITS SAME-SEX COUPLES

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.

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CDC echoes call for MSM to limit sex partners in monkeypox guidance

Controversial guidance also issued by WHO

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CDC is calling on men who have sex with men to limit their sexual partners.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention is now echoing the controversial call for men who have sex with men to limit their sexual partners amid the monkeypox outbreak.

The agency made the call as part of new comprehensive monkeypox guidance issued on Friday, which lists “limit your number of sex partners to reduce your likelihood of exposure” as among several ways to reduce risk, with vaccination at the top of the list.

Vaccination is an important tool in preventing the spread of monkeypox,” the guidance says. “But given the current limited supply of vaccine, consider temporarily changing some behaviors that may increase your risk of being exposed. These temporary changes will help slow the spread of monkeypox until vaccine supply is adequate.”

The call to limit partners was previously made by the World Health Organization and has been controversial as observers say it may stigmatize sex among gay and bisexual men, who are disproportionately affected by monkeypox.

Demetre Daskalakis, deputy director of the White House task force on monkeypox, outlined the new guidance on Friday in a conference call with reporters.

Asked by the Washington Blade whether the Biden administration agrees with WHO about the need for men who have sex with men to limit their sexual partners, Daskalakis alluded to the multi-faceted aspects of the CDC guidance.

“It mentions that folks should consider reducing multiple partners and anonymous new partners as one strategy to prevent exposure to monkeypox,” Daskalakis said. “So I think really, there’s a broad range, and I think one of the things that’s really important about the CDC guidance is it’s designed to really meet people where they are and see what we can do to have individuals to create their own prevention plans, understanding that there’s not one answer for preventing monkeypox, that it requires a lot of domains to really achieve the goal of preventing new infections.”

Vaccinations for monkeypox are a key component of the CDC guidance, even though the limited availability has not kept up with the growing demand for the shots as the outbreak continues. Daskalakis conceded on the call there is “supply and demand mismatch” for vaccines, but maintained the Department of Health & Human Services announcement declaring monkeypox a public health crisis would be a tool to address the shortage.

A key concern among reporters on the call was the Biden administration not emphasizing the disease is almost exclusively at this point affecting gay and bisexual men, as well as concerns about stigma and misinformation about monkeypox.

Daskalakis, drawing on his experience as a medical expert during the HIV/AIDS crisis, emphasized stigma should play no part in messaging.

“I know from my own experience in public health and personally that stigma is actually what drives so much of infection and really creates false starts and false information that really gets people to go down paths that end up really vilifying people’s lives and behavior,” Daskalakis said. “And so, coming from the experience, both professionally and personally, it is my mission, to not allow stigma to be a part of this or any response that I work on.”

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University of Alabama allows students to use “chosen names” on student ID

“Having something that accurately reflects who you are as a person and how you want to make sure that the world sees and respects you is obviously monumentally important, right?”

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Students, faculty and campus members at University of Alabama are now able to put their preferred names on mobile Action Cards, which are the official campus ID cards, for free.

The university’s assistant director of communications Shane Dorrill wrote in email that this option, available on physical cards for several years, will be available online as well after a software update.

ACT Card communications specialist Courtney Petrizzi said the ACT Card office recognized the importance of having the feature, which was previously available on physical cards, on mobile ACT Cards. 

“This change is an update that we created to reflect our campus community’s needs,” Petrizzi said. 

The Action Card office announced this change on May 19. They updated the policy in partnership with UA Safe Zone, a resource center for LGBTQIA+ individuals and their allies on campus. 

Eli Strong, one co-founder of UA Safe Zone said during an interview with AL, “Having something that accurately reflects who you are as a person and how you want to make sure that the world sees and respects you is obviously monumentally important, right?” 

Strong is a transgender man who graduated from University of Alabama. He believed that this change is important because it’s a safety issue. It’s a way for the university to acknowledge people and a way for people to feel affirmed by the documentation they carry around each day.

“It’s an exploratory time where you should be focused on learning and not be focused on the fear of being misgendered or harassed because of who you are,” Will Thomas, one of the co-founders of the University of Alabama LGBTQ+ Alumni Association, claimed that affirming documentation can help students have a positive experience.

This policy change comes after a series of anti-gay lesigilations passed in Alabama, including the Don’t Say Gay amendment and transgender bathroom restrictions.

Campus members can use Action Cards for various daily needs, such as meal plans and dining dollars, building access, sporting and entertainment events and health center access.

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U.S. declares monkeypox a public health emergency

Number of cases of disease among MSM climbs

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Secretary of Health & Human Service Xavier Becerra declared on public health emergency on monkeypox.

The United States has designated monkeypox a public health emergency as the number of cases of the disease, which has primarily affected men who have sex with men, continues to climb.

The news was first reported by the New York Times. Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra announced he’d declare monkeypox a public health emergency in a conference call on Thursday with reporters.

“I will be declaring a public health emergency on monkeypox,” Becerra said. “We’re prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus, and we urge every American to take monkeypox seriously and to take responsibility to help us tackle this virus.”

Robert Fenton, the recently appointed White House National Monkeypox Response Coordinator, said amid criticism the Biden administration has been too slow in responding to monkeypox the new declaration would open up opportunities in confronting the outbreak.

“The public health emergency will allow us to explore additional strategies to get vaccines and treatments more quickly out in the affected communities, and it will allow us to get more data from jurisdictions so we can effectively track the suffering,” Fenton said.

During the call, Becerra said an estimated 6,600 cases of monkeypox have been reported throughout the country, and more than 600,000 vaccines have been delivered to localities. The United States, Becerra said, now has the capacity to administer 60,000 tests for monkeypox each week.

The Biden administration has faced criticism for not moving quickly enough to collect and distribute and for not more explicitly naming gay and bisexual men as being primarily affected by the disease. The New York Times reported this week the Department of Health & Human Services failed to act early on bulk stocks of vaccine.

“The government is now distributing about 1.1 million doses, less than a third of the 3.5 million that health officials now estimate are needed to fight the outbreak,” the Times reported. “It does not expect the next delivery, of half a million doses, until October. Most of the other 5.5 million doses the United States has ordered are not scheduled to be delivered until next year, according to the federal health agency.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, has been among the critics of the Biden administration’s approach to the outbreak.

Although the Biden administration has issued a rudimentary plan on monkeypox, Burr said in a statement the Department of Health & Human Services hasn’t laid out an effective plan to Congress.

“I have asked HHS repeatedly for their strategic plan to combat monkeypox and have yet to receive an answer,” Burr said. “On July 13, I sent a letter to Secretary Becerra asking detailed questions about the outbreak and the Biden administration’s response. In the three weeks since that letter was sent, monkeypox cases have increased by more than 470 percent to 6,617 reported cases today. Still, the administration continues to stonewall Congress.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended the Biden administration’s early approach to the monkeypox Thursday under questioning from CNN during the regular briefing with reporters.

“Within two days of the first confirmed case of monkeypox in the U.S., we began deploying vaccine to states and jurisdictions and prepositioning tens of thousands of additional doses in the Strategic National Stockpile,” Jean-Pierre said. “The initial science led us to believe…based on recent past monkeypox outbreaks, that those doses would be sufficient to meet the needs of the country as what we knew at that time.”

Jean-Pierre added, however, infections diseases are dynamics and inherently predictable and the Biden administration “quickly moved” to order tens of thousands of new doses when officials saw that happening with monkeypox.

Asked by CNN whether President Biden think his administration acted urgently in its approach to monkeypox, Jean-Pierre replied, “What we’re saying to you is that I laid out how dynamic and how rapidly changing this virus has been.”

“So yes, the President has confidence in HHS, and let’s not forget, we just brought on the monkeypox coordinators, the response team, which is also going to make a difference,” Jean-Pierre added.

Jennifer Kates, director of global health & HIV policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, was among those praising the announcement from the Biden administration.

“Monkeypox is quickly spreading throughout the United States, with significant health implications for those it impacts most – so far, primarily gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men – and limited supplies of treatments and vaccines,” Kates said. “This latest move by the federal government is an important one for providing new flexibilities and allowing federal, state, and local health officials to take additional actions to address the outbreak. “

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