Rep. Nancy Pelosi and 83 representatives push for protections for binational couples

Yesterday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and 83 additional members of Congress sent a letter to the Obama administration urging the President to take formal action on a statement he made last year about working to protect binational same-sex couples. Binational same-sex couples - where one partner is a foreign citizen - face immigration challenges in the United States because the so-called Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from recognizing marriages or unions between same-sex couples, meaning that the U.S. citizen cannot sponsor their foreign partner to remain in the country.

Last August, President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security declared that their efforts to enforce immigration laws would begin viewing LGBT relationships as a "family relationship" and that they had placed a lower priority on immigration cases involving binational same-sex couples. Now, Pelosi and her 83 House colleagues are asking President Obama to officially delineate the policy in writing so that there is no question about how cases involving binational same-sex couples should be handled.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) are also lead signers on the document (available in full here). Nadler is the sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, which proposes gender-neutral language and the inclusion of the term "permanent partner" in the Immigration and Naturalization Act so that married different-sex couples and partnered same-sex couples would be subject to the same treatment by immigration authorities and policies. Honda is lead sponsor on the Reuniting Families Act, which would work to ensure that spouses, children, parents and siblings separated by unfair immigration policies could live together in the United States. 

The letter talks through all of the steps that members of Congress have taken to enjoin the Obama administration to formalize the "lower priority" policy. At the end of the letter, the signers explain

Until the policy regarding LGBT persons is put into writing, ICE enforcement officials and attorneys who are responsible for actually implementing DHS policy, plus other key stakeholders, may remain unaware of its existence. This may lead to continued and tragic separations of foreign nationals from their U.S. citizen same-sex spouses and partners.

Having this policy in writing will increase awareness of DHS's position on this issue among DHS staff, adjudicators, the immigration bar, and affected individuals. 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.

Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, an organization that works for justice for LGBT individuals under U.S. immigration law, spoke with BuzzFeed on the action. He said:

It is a simple action, but also one that will have a real impact on real people and families. We hope Secretary Napolitano will heed the advice of those who signed the letter, and take this important step toward protecting some of the most vulnerable individuals within the immigration system from deportation.

Freedom to Marry has been working to overturn the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act through our work at the federal level, convincing elected officials to sign onto the Respect for Marriage Act, which would overturn DOMA, and speak out about the importance of recognizing legal marriages between same-sex couples. We thank these Congressmembers for standing up for binational same-sex couples and applaud them for their commitment to all loving couples.