In August of 2011, the Obama administration announced that they would implement a set of guidelines to make sure all deportations were logical and cost-effective. Vaguely included in those guidelines was hope for binational queer couples who were at risk of being torn apart through DOMA: the development in policy would consider same-sex couples to be a family, thus protecting a foreign partner from deportation.
Two months after the initial announcement, 69 members of Congress sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, asking for the LGBT immigration policy to be put in writing. They feared that without explicit, written guidance, LGBT family ties would be overlooked by deportation decision makers.
But rather than addressing this request, the Department of Homeland Security responded with what was viewed as a setback to the original announcement that the ties of immigrants to same-sex spouses would be viewed as family ties that could factor into prosecutorial discretion. Regarding same-sex couples, the response merely said, “LGBT individuals’ ties and contributions to the community are taken into account.” It was vague, ambiguous, and extremely disappointing. And worst of all, it sent a mixed message to those in charge of enforcing immigration laws.
One year later, it still has yet to be explicitly written down, and House Democrats are arguing that the Obama Administration has fallen short on its promise. And so this Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and 84 other members of the House once again sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security urging Secretary Napolitano to protect the rights of LGBT families.
By issuing written guidance, DHS can keep LGBT families from being separated and thus prevent the irreparable, permanent harm to families that is caused by the so-called Defense of Marriage Act—discrimination the Department of Justice has determined to be unconstitutional. It would be beyond senseless to see LGBT persons with family ties here in the United States deported simply because the affected persons, their attorneys, and/or ICE officials were unaware of DHS’s verbal policy. Yet sadly, we are aware of several instances since August 18, 2011 where ICE attorneys did not offer prosecutorial discretion to foreign nationals with LGBT family ties, until members of Congress, advocacy organizations, or the media weighed in to convince ICE to reverse its position.
Immigration Equality spokesman Steve Ralls responded to the letter with enthusiastic approval. “It is a simple action,” he said, “But also one that will have a real impact on real people and families.”
Of the letter, Pelosi said, “Keeping loving families together, particularly in cases in which one partner or spouse is a U.S. citizen, should be a priority for immigration enforcement.” Unfortunately, until there is an unambiguous, written public policy on the matter, change seems hard to achieve. The current family-based immigration system has not been updated in over 20 years. It’s time our immigration system catches up to the country’s evolving definition of family, rather than continuing to uphold discriminatory policies by remaining silent.