January 17, 2013 at 5:33 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Gillibrand leads renewed call to help bi-national couples
Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senate, New York, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is calling on the Obama administration to take action for bi-national same-sex couples (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The junior senator from New York is taking up the lead on a renewed call for administrative action to help bi-national same-sex couples in anticipation of a ruling from the Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act.

In a letter sent out Thursday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other U.S. senators call on the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to take action to ensure that married bi-national same-sex couples won’t face separation before justices make a final determination in case of Windsor v. United States before the end of June.

Senators ask Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to hold the marriage-based green card petitions for bi-national same-sex couples in abeyance until the court makes its ruling on DOMA. Additionally, they ask Attorney General Eric Holder to institute a moratorium on orders of removal issued by immigration courts to married foreign nationals who would otherwise be able to adjust their status if not for DOMA.

“By taking these interim steps, vulnerable families affected by DOMA can remain together until the Supreme Court issues its decision,” the senators wrote. “Preserving family unity is a fundamental American value and is the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration law.”

Unlike straight Americans, gay Americans are unable to sponsor a foreign same-sex spouse for residency in the United States because DOMA prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. As a result, these couples could be faced with separation — or even deportation if the foreign nationals in these relationships lose their immigration status. Stand alone legislation that would address this issue is known as the Uniting American Families Act.

Besides Gillibrand, other signers of the letter are Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). A total of 13 names are on the request.

Senators have made repeated requests of the Obama administration on the issue — in addition to the letters from House lawmakers and one most recently from 54 LGBT and immigrant advocacy groups. It’s the third such letter signed by a group of senators — not counting one written by Blumenthal and on behalf a lesbian couple in his state and another written by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on behalf of another couple in another situation.

Several senators who’ve previously signed these letters have not penned their name to the most current one. Absent is Kerry — who had previously been leading these efforts for the letters, but has recently been nominated as secretary of state — as well as Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Gillibrand’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on why these names were absent.

Other absent names are former Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who signed before his retirement from the Senate early this year, and the late Sen. Daniel Inouye.

But each time in response to these letters, the Obama administration has said it’ll continue enforcing DOMA as long as it remains on the books.

Things don’t seem any different this time around. The various agencies to whom the letter is addressed seemed disinclined to take immediate action as a result of the letter. Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokesperson, had no immediate comment and said the department would review the letter.

Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesperson, reiterated the Obama administration continues to continue to enforce the law as long as it remains on the books.

“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 a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional,” he said.

The Obama administration has already taken steps to address this issue. For example, in October, the Department of Homeland Security issued guidance stipulating 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.

But marriage-based green card applications are still being denied.

Last week, the Obama administration denied for two couples in different parts of the country. The two green card denials of which the Washington Blade learned on Friday were for Kelly Costello and Fabiola Morales, a lesbian couple from Potomac, Md., and Adi and Tzila Levy of New York.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said the letter “underscores the necessity of administrative action” as observers await the final determination on the constitutionality of DOMA and action on comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

“The White House has pledged its assurance that LGBT binational couples will not be torn apart, and abeyance – which would give couples legal presence and protection in the country until a permanent option for residency is available – would be a natural extension of that pledge,” Ralls said. “Given those permanent solutions which are on the horizon, our hope is that President Obama will concur with the senators’ letter and grant abeyance for the next six months or so, until all families have access to the green cards they deserve.”


The full text of the senators’ letter is below:

Dear Mr. Attorney General and Madam Secretary:

We continue to applaud the President for his decision not to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (‘DOMA’) in federal court. We also applaud the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for including “long-term same-sex partners” under the Administration’s policy that suspends deportations of some immigrants who pose no security risk. These developments are steps in the right direction, but DOMA is still the law of the land and continues to discriminate against a class of Americans.

Following the 2012 election, there are now nine states and the District of Columbia recognizing same-sex marriage with several other states granting similar rights. However with DOMA as law, we are creating a tier of second-class families in these States. DOMA prevents same-sex immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens from successfully applying for permanent resident visas. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Windsor v. U.S. and will determine the constitutionality of DOMA in the next term; by June we will know whether or not applications for lawful permanent residence for lesbian and gay spouses will ultimately be approvable.

Given the historic nature of Windsor v. U.S., we urge DHS to hold marriage-based immigration petitions in abeyance until the Supreme Court issues its ruling on same-sex marriage. Holding these cases in abeyance for a few months will prevent hardship to LGBT immigrant families. We also call upon the Department of Justice to institute a moratorium on orders of removal issued by the immigration courts to married foreign nationals who would be otherwise eligible to adjust their status to lawful permanent resident but for DOMA. By taking these interim steps, vulnerable families affected by DOMA can remain together until the Supreme Court issues its decision.

Preserving family unity is a fundamental American value and is the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration law. Thank you for your decision not to defend the constitutionality of a law that hurts so many families and for your consideration of this request.

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

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