HADDONFIELD, N.J. – U.S. Rep. Rush Holt is pushing the Obama administration to halt deportation proceedings against the same-sex spouses of U.S. citizens.
The Democrat wrote a letter to the federal Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday to make the request on behalf of a couple who live in his central New Jersey district. An estimated 36,000 bi-national same-sex couples are in the U.S., and all have reason to be worried if deportations are not stopped, the couple's lawyer says.
The case underscores the ambiguous status of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman. Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder said the government would no longer defend the law in court. But the administration continues to enforce it.
In New Jersey, Princeton University political science graduate student Josh Vandiver was married last year in Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is legal, to Henry Velandia, a citizen of Venezuela and professional salsa dancer.
Velandia's visitor visa expired, and he said he hasn't been able to get a green card, or permanent resident status, through an employer. Because the federal government doesn't recognize the couple's marriage, Vandiver cannot sponsor Velandia as a heterosexual person could sponsor a spouse.
Now Velandia is facing possible deportation and could be returned to his home country after a hearing May 6.
Some members of Congress want to repeal the law, and many advocates expect a federal court will invalidate it. But neither measure is likely to happen quickly.
"In light of Attorney General Holder's new guidance, I am asking you to suspend the deportation of all spouses of citizens in a same-sex marriage until a decision is reached on DOMA," Holt wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. "This is the right thing to do for Henry, Josh and countless others who are being victimized by this discriminatory and unconstitutional law."
Homeland Security did not immediately comment on Holt's request.
His plea follows confusion last week over how visas should be handled. The government briefly allowed applications for immigrant benefits for same-sex couples, then reversed course days later after a review of the laws.
Lavi Soloway, attorney for the New Jersey couple, says that at any given time, a few hundred couples in similar situations as his clients face deportation proceedings.
"All of them live with the fear that what Josh and Henry have on May 6 will one day be on their schedule as well," said Soloway, who practices in New York and Los Angeles. "They all have this barrier to resolving their immigration status."
He said that if the Defense of Marriage law is struck down, same-sex couples legally married in any state will be recognized as married by the federal government. As a practical matter, that would bring not only immigration status but tax benefits for some couples.
Meanwhile, Vandiver, 29, and Velandia, 27, gain moral support through a Facebook page dedicated to keeping Velandia in the U.S. It has more than 10,000 supporters, some of them with similar frustrations.
"Many of them, you can feel their sadness," Velandia said. "It's so beautiful to see their support. It's good to be their voice."