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Despite assurances, LGBT advocates want more for bi-national couples

DHS says same-sex marriage a factor in evaluating deportation cases

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The US Department of Homeland Security

The issue of keeping married bi-national gay couples together in the United States is receiving fresh attention as LGBT advocates call for more action beyond a recent statement from the Department of Homeland Security saying being in a same-sex marriage is a factor in determining whether a potential deportee should be able to stay in the country.

On Thursday, Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesperson, affirmed that the Obama administration would examine whether an individual is in a same-sex marriage when deciding to exercise prosecutorial discretion in a deportation for an undocumented immigrant.

“Pursuant to the Attorney General’s guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the Department of Homeland Security will continue to enforce it unless and until Congress repeals it, or there is a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional,” Boogaard said. “However, when exercising prosecutorial discretion in enforcement matters, DHS looks at the totality of the circumstances presented in individual cases, including whether an individual has close family ties to the United States as demonstrated by his or her same-sex marriage or other longstanding relationship to a United States citizen.”

Boogaard’s statement marks the first time the Obama administration has said on the record it will factor in whether someone is in a same-sex marriage when determining whether to exercise prosecutorial discretion in a deportation case. The administration previously communicated in August 2011 that it would “consider LGBT families” under a policy in which officials would examine on a case-by-case basis the potential deportations of about 300,000 undocumented immigrants, but that was only said without attribution. The new statement also changes “LGBT families” to “same-sex marriage.”

Additionally, the words mark one of the few times that the Obama administration has said it would recognize married same-sex couples even though DOMA, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, remains on the books. Last year, the Justice Department announced it would allow married same-sex couples to file jointly for bankruptcy; the Office of Personnel Management gave U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals employee Karen Golinski health benefits for her same-sex spouse, but both of those decisions were more limited in scope and the result of court orders.

The DHS statement comes in response to a letter that 84 House Democrats signed calling for DHS to issue guidance for providing prosecutorial discretion for married bi-national same-sex couples in situations where the foreign national in the relationship is undocumented and possibly in danger of deportation. Straight Americans can sponsor their spouses for residency in the United States through a marriage-based green card application, but that option isn’t available to gay Americans because of DOMA.

In a letter dated Aug. 3, the signers — who include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) — ask for “written field guidance or a memorandum” indicating DHS will “consider LGBT family ties as a positive factor for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.” It’s not the first time such a letter has been sent. Last year, 69 House Democrats sent a letter to DHS calling for similar action.

Despite the new statement from DHS, those behind the letter say they want more and a response from a DHS spokesperson doesn’t take the place of written guidance. Some behind the letter say the statement from DHS reflects a policy that is already understood to be in place.

Nadler, sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States, was among those saying more is necessary.

“I appreciate the response from DHS’s spokesperson on the issue of prosecutorial discretion, but the policy mentioned is the one I already understood to be in place,” Nadler said. “What my colleagues and I are asking, and have been requesting since 2011, is that those guidelines now be put clearly onto paper for DHS agents in the field so that there is no longer any confusion as to their mission vis-à-vis the deportation of gays and lesbians with demonstrated family and community ties in the U.S.”

Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for Nancy Pelosi, called the statement a “welcome development,” but echoed the sentiment that more was sought in the letter.

“It’s a welcome development that a DHS spokesperson is explicitly and publicly acknowledging that DHS’s consideration of family ties includes same-sex couples and spouses,” Hammill said. “We look forward to the written guidance that we expect would be a logical next step.”

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Honda, sponsor of the Reuniting Families Act, which has UAFA-inclusive language, said he “greatly appreciate[s]” the statement from DHS,  but also wants the policy clearly written in guidance for U.S. Customs & Immigration Enforcement officials.

“I greatly appreciate the Department of Homeland Security’s explicit verbal statement recognizing the value of same-sex relationships in immigration proceedings,” Honda said. “However, for the sake of those LGBT families, who — today or tomorrow — may face a tragic and senseless separation, their attorneys, and ICE field officials, an indubitable and unequivocal written policy and implementation guideline remain the best assurance for protection. I look forward to working with DHS to ensure that this becomes a reality.”

That sentiment was echoed by an LGBT advocacy group that focuses on immigration issues. Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, noted there’s nothing new in the statement provided by DHS.

“We’ve heard verbally before that they intend for their guidelines to be inclusive, but then, on the flipside of that, we’ve heard from field officers that they’ve never received that instruction in writing,” Ralls said. “Leader Pelosi and the other signers of the letter were very clear that they want to see that policy articulated in writing and distributed to the field, and that doesn’t seem to be the commitment that we’re getting in the statement today from DHS.”

Asked whether he thinks it’s significant that DHS is for the first time articulating this policy on the record, Ralls said, “Again, I think the real issue is who they say it to and not who says it. It needs to be a written policy directed squarely to the field. … That’s what we need. That’s what Nadler, Honda and Pelosi wanted. That’s not what DHS delivered today.”

The exception to the nonplussed reactions was Lavi Soloway, an immigration attorney and co-founder of Stop the Deportations, who called the news “a giant step forward in the fight against DOMA” and the first formal recognition from the Obama administration of married same-sex couples.

“This move is significant beyond the immigration context, as it constitutes the first time any agency of the federal government has created a policy explicitly recognizing same-sex marriages,” Soloway added. “By giving legal effect to the lawful marriages of gay and lesbian couples, the Obama administration has demonstrated what we have argued all along to be true: that executive branch agencies can create policy to mitigate the discriminatory impact of DOMA on gay and lesbian binational couples, even while DOMA continues to prevent approval of those couples’ green card petitions.”

Still, Soloway said he wants to see the policy articulated in guidance, saying, “To ensure that our families are protected with consistent application of this newly inclusive prosecutorial discretion policy, it is crucial that detailed written guidance encompassing this official announcement be issued without delay.

Despite these calls for having instructions explicitly written in guidance, DHS maintains agents and attorneys have been trained to know that LGBT families and same-sex couples are covered under the new policy. Since the DHS announcement last year, ICE has already announced that several bi-national couples have been taken out of the deportation pipeline, such as Anthony Makk and Bradford Wells of San Francisco.

DHS didn’t respond to a request to comment on reactions from lawmakers and advocates to the statement provided last week.

Letter renews call to hold marriage-based green cards

The House Democrats’ letter isn’t the only one that the Obama administration has received recently on married bi-national same-sex couples. Immigration Equality delivered a letter to the White House and the Justice Department on Friday asking for the marriage-based green card applications to be held in abeyance now that a time for when the Supreme Court will review DOMA has become more clear.

The letter, signed by Immigration Equality Executive Director Rachel Tiven and Legal Director Victoria Neilson, is dated July 26 and renews an earlier request from the organization that was denied by the Obama administration, saying the administration should reconsider because “it is now clear that a final judicial determination on the constitutionality of DOMA is imminent.”

“[I]t is now clear that the Supreme Court will render a decision on the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA within a year. In the meanwhile, if USCIS continues to deny the applications of lawfully married couples, lesbian and gay immigrant families will continue to suffer irreparable harm through forced separations, forced exile, or the accrual of unlawful presence in the United States,” the letter states. “Holding green card petitions and applications without adjudicating them will preserve agency resources and prevent real harm to real families until the Supreme Court resolves this issue next year.”

Among the reasons cited in the letter for a likely imminent decision from the Supreme Court on DOMA are rulings against the anti-gay law from the First Circuit and district courts as well as multiple pending petitions asking the high court to take up the law.

The letter is dated the day after U.S. Chief Judge Carol Bagley Amon of the Eastern District of New York placed a stay on Immigration Equality’s lawsuit against DOMA, Blesch v. Holder, pending resolution of another DOMA lawsuit, Windsor v. United States, before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment. A White House spokesperson deferred to DHS, which provided the same statement in response to the letter signed by House Democrats. As of Monday, Immigration Equality has said it hasn’t yet received a response from the Obama administration.

Soloway also said putting marriage-based green card applications in abeyance for same-sex couples is the best way for the Obama administration to ensure these families can remain together in the United States without fear of separation.

“To address this immediate, irreparable harm, the administration should stop denying green card petitions filed by gay and lesbian binational couples and instead put those cases on hold pending a ruling by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of DOMA expected next year,” Soloway said.

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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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Alabama

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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