The omission of bi-national same-sex couples from recent guidance from the Obama administration is troubling advocates who fear the omission may mean LGBT families won’t be covered under new immigration policy.
The Department of Homeland Security issued guidance on Thursday to attorneys with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement detailing which undocumented immigrants could be deemed a low priority and taken out of the deportation pipeline.
The guidance is the result of the announcement from the Obama administration in August that it will conduct a case-by-case review of about 300,000 undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation. 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.
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Administration officials have said they’ll weigh a person’s ties and contributions to the community and family relationships in considering which immigrants are low priority, and these criteria would be inclusive of LGBT families.
According to the New York Times, the process for determining which immigrants could be taken out of the deportation pipeline began on Thursday.
But in the guidance spelling out the details for this review, no mention of immigrants who are in same-sex relationships with U.S. citizens is enumerated among the categories of people who are listed as those who could be considered low priority.
Categories that are identified as low priority include immigrants who had enlisted in the armed forces or those who came to the United States under the age of 16 and are pursuing a college degree. Such immigrants would be eligible for citizenship under passage of the DREAM Act.
Other categories deemed low priority are those who older than age 65 and have lived in the country for more than 10 years and those who have been the victim of domestic violence.
Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said the lack of explicit mention of bi-national same-sex couples “isn’t just deeply disappointing; it is also detrimental to LGBT immigrants and their American spouses and partners.”
“By declining to address, in writing, the unique circumstances surrounding those couples, DHS has left too much room for interpretation and left too many couples vulnerable to separation,” Ralls said. “There is no justifiable reason for exclusionary guidelines, and every reason to be explicit in clarifying that the administration believes LGBT Americans should not be forced apart from their husbands and wives.”
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Despite the lack of explicit mention, the guidance identifies as another low category an undocumented immigrant “who has a very long-term presence in the United States, has a immediate family member who is a United States citizen, and has established compelling ties and made compelling contributions to the United States.” An immigrant in a same-sex relationship with a U.S. citizen may qualify in this category.
Ralls acknowledged that DHS may intend for bi-national same-sex couples to fall into this category, but said the language is too vague to ensure protections.
“The issue, however, lies in the fact that DHS does not say so in its written guidelines, leaving the definition of ‘immediate family member’ open to interpretation by DHS and ICE officers,” Ralls said. “That’s problematic because, without that explicit guidance, there is no documentation mandating that officers use an inclusive definition as they review pending deportation cases.”
Ralls cited as an example a Boston-area bi-national couple who were told by an immigration official they couldn’t qualify for relief under the new policy — even though they’re legally married.
“The official — despite past press statements by DHS about the agency’s inclusive definition of family — declared they were under no obligation to offer discretion on the basis of the couple’s marriage in Massachusetts,” Ralls said. “As a result, the immigrant spouse is now facing deportation to a hostile, homophobic country in the Caribbean. Their case is a perfect example of the very real — and very dangerous — position couples are faced with when DHS relies on verbal instruction rather than written guidance.”
Lavi Soloway, founder of Stop the Deportations, also criticized the Obama administration for the omission.
“It is disturbing that DHS continues to exclude LGBT families from its increasingly specific written guidelines on prosecutorial discretion in deportation cases,” Soloway said. “DHS telegraphs through its spokespersons that we are intended to be included within the phrasing ‘immediate family members’ or ‘family relationships,’ but there can be no justification for leaving this up to the imagination of individual ICE attorneys or deportation officers. Strong guidance on LGBT families facing deportation would ensure a uniform national policy and would do nothing to limit the exercise of discretion.”
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A DHS official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said same-sex couples aren’t explicitly mentioned in the guidance because the Obama administration wants to cover both married and unmarried LGBT couples.
“One of the strongest reasons why we go with a family approach — focusing on the family relationship and not a marital relationship — is because we want to include individuals who are in long standing domestic partnerships so we can capture more same-sex couples,” the official said. “We used the term the family members largely so that domestic partnerships would be included in the standard.”
Asked whether 100 percent of foreign nationals in same-sex relationships with U.S. citizens would be taken out of the pipeline if they have no other factors weighing against them, the official replied, “When we exercise prosecutorial discretion, we’re limited by law and doing it on a case-by-case. So every case in unique; every case is different. I really couldn’t say 100 percent of any category is going to be saved from removal.”
The official added that in two similarly situated cases where one immigrant is an opposite-sex marriage and has no negative factors weighing him or her and another immigrant is in a same-sex relationship and has no negative factors weighing against him or her, both would “be treated equally under this policy.”
In a statement, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) also said he finds the lack of explicit mention of same-sex couples in the guidance unpalatable.
“I am very concerned by the administration’s failure to state in its written guidance to ICE attorneys, released today, that families of LGBT binational couples should be treated equally, like all other families in America,” Nadler said.
The lawmaker is the sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, legislation that would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States.
Nadler continued, “While I appreciate prior commitments by DHS that LGBT family ties will be taken into account in immigration enforcement decisions – and that this will be explained to ICE agents – without such a directive in writing, there is a serious risk that such families could be wrongfully divided. With the administration taking an otherwise positive step to make immigration enforcement fairer, it is extremely frustrating that families of LGBT binational couples remain at risk. I will be working to ensure that those families are also protected.”
The New York Democrat is among 69 House members who sent to a letter to the Obama administration in September calling for more explicit guidance that bi-national same-sex couples would be included in the new immigration policy.