The Department of Homeland Security intends to spell out in written guidance that immigration officers should consider “long-term, same-sex partners” as families when considering whether to exercise prosecutorial discretion in the potential deportation of an undocumented immigrant.
In a letter dated Sept. 27, 2012 to Congress, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano affirms U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement intends to disseminate this guidance to personnel in the field.
“In an effort to make clear the definition of the phrase ‘family relationships,’ I have directed ICE to disseminate written guidance to the field that the interpretation of the phrase ‘family relationships’ includes long-term, same-sex partners,” Napolitano writes.
Napolitano adds the applicability of family relationships should be “weighed on a individual basis” for each immigrant in a potential deportation case.
The new guidance follows up on a 2011 memorandum informing ICE personnel they should consider consider the totality of circumstances for an undocumented immigrant when making enforcement decisions in immigration law. Circumstances that were under consideration — in addition to “ties and contributions to the community” — included an undocumented immigrant’s age, military service and cooperation with authorities.
Advocates had been calling for on DHS to broaden the memo to include explicit protections for bi-national same-sex couples. Later, when DHS announced last year it would go through the deportation pipeline and take out low priority individuals on a case-by-case basis, it had informed the media that “LGBT families” would be among the factors considered, an assertion that was made on the record for the first time last month.
Still, advocates continued to seek more explicit protections. The upcoming guidance will mark the first time DHS has explicitly spelled out this policy in guidance to immigration officers.
Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, called the DHS announcement “a huge step forward” in the organization’s effort to ensure bi-national same-sex couples can stay together within the United States.
“Until now, LGBT families and their lawyers had nothing to rely on but an oral promise that prosecutorial discretion would include all families,” Tiven said. “Today, DHS has responded to Congress and made that promise real. The administration’s written guidance will help families facing separation and the field officers who are reviewing their cases.”
Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesperson, confirmed plans for new guidance in an email to the Washington Blade, but said officers were already operating under the policy that will be spelled out in the document.
“This written guidance will simply reiterate existing policy regarding how DHS considers the totality of circumstances presented in individual cases when exercising prosecutorial discretion in enforcement matters,” Boogaard said. “Long-term, same-sex partners have been included as ‘family relationships’ under ICE Director Morton’s June 2011 prosecutorial discretion memorandum.”
Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said DHS informed his organization that the written guidance should be issued within the next week.
Napolitano’s letter responds to an August 3 letter signed by 84 House Democrats — led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) — urging DHS to spell out this policy to immigration officers.
In a statement, Nadler said he’s “thrilled” the Obama administration is taking action to ensure bi-national same-sex couples are included in guidelines for prosecutorial discretion.
“I am thrilled that the Obama Administration has taken to heart my concern about the need to explicitly protect LGBT immigrant families from being torn apart by needless and unwarranted immigration enforcement actions,” Nadler said. “I thank Secretary Napolitano for listening and supporting a policy that protects all American families, both straight and LGBT. With the written guidelines that I requested and which will be issued by ICE, federal immigration officials will finally have the clear direction they need to make responsible and compassionate decisions on family ties in immigration cases.”
Honda called the announcement from Napolitano “promising news” that came about as a result of collaboration between LGBT activists and lawmakers.
“After many conversations with President Obama’s administration, a strong push by the LGBT community, and with the help of my colleagues, Secretary Napolitano has announced that she will disseminate written guidance to immigration authorities that confirms the interpretation of the phrase ‘family relationships’ to include LGBT relationships — specifically the relationships of immigrants in same-sex marriages and partnerships with U.S. citizens,” Honda said.
But Honda added advocates should continue pressing for immigration reform because “current immigration laws are tearing families apart and separating American citizens from their loves ones.” In the case of same-sex couples, gay Americans are still unable to sponsor their foreign same-sex partners for residency in the United States — regardless of whether these couples are married or otherwise.
Honda said the current situation with immigration is why he introduced the Reuniting Families Act, which he said “ensures that they are treated equitably through an immigration reform that is both comprehensive and inclusive.” It has a provision that would protect bi-national same-sex couples as one of its six prongs for immigrant families.
“The United States is a nation built upon the toil of immigrants hoping to build better lives for themselves and their families,” Honda concluded. “Our country deserves an immigration system that honors that legacy and keeps all families intact.”