The Department of Homeland Security is planning to issue a policy memo making undocumented immigrants with American same-sex partners eligible to have their deportations put on hold under a federal program designed to focus resources away from low-priority cases. Gay rights activists and their allies in Congress had been pulling for the announcement, made by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a Thursday letter to 84 Democratic lawmakers.
“It will mark the very first time that lesbian and gay couples have been recognized within immigration policy for relief,” said Steve Ralls, the spokesman for Immigration Equality, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender immigrants. The Democratic lawmakers addressed in Napolitano’s letter pressed the agency to inform ICE field offices that bi-national gay couples in long-term relationships have family ties that should be considered as grounds for deferring a foreign citizen’s removal from the U.S.
“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 wrote, adding that the decision to grant reprieves still would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The instructions do not mean that foreigners who are married to Americans of the same sex will be eligible for green cards or citizenship, as are immigrants with opposite sex spouses. The Obama administration is continuing to enforce a 1996 law that prohibits the government from recognizing same-sex marriages, even as it opposes it in court and takes gay relationships into account when evaluating deportation cases.
However, the announcement will likely provide relief to some of the 29,000 same-sex couples nationwide comprised of a U.S citizen and a citizen of another country, according to a 2010 estimate by the Williams Institute.