SAN FRANCISCO – Amid pressure from Democratic lawmakers, Homeland Security officials reiterated Friday that a foreigner's longstanding same-sex relationship with a U.S. citizen could help stave off the threat of deportation.
Binational gay couples are eligible for consideration under a federal program designed to focus resources away from low-priority deportation cases and let officials spend more time tracking down convicted criminals, said Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.
However, the Obama administration will not automatically shelve deportation cases or process green card applications involving foreign citizens married to same-sex American partners.
Catron said Homeland Security will continue to comply with a 1996 law that prohibits the government from recognizing same-sex relationships, even as it takes these relationships into consideration when evaluating possible deportation.
The Obama administration last year said it considers the Defense of Marriage law unconstitutional and would no longer defend it in court.
Friday's statement, which builds on comments Homeland Security officials made last summer, came three days after 84 lawmakers led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded the agency put its position in writing and disseminate it to Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices to help keep same-sex couples together.
The reassurance was first reported on Thursday by the online news site BuzzFeed. Immigrant advocates welcomed the comments but said a formal policy still is needed.
"It is significant to me because it is expressly inclusive of LGBT families," said Lavi Soloway, an immigration attorney who represents a number of same-sex couples in deportation proceedings.
Yet "as long as it's not in writing it doesn't mean that much for an individual in deportation," Soloway said.
That sentiment was echoed by Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill, whose boss is awaiting word on whether the administration plans to recognize couples' ties in a memo or field guidance," not just public statements.
"We look forward to the written guidance that we expect would be a logical next step," Hammill said.
Homeland Security officials did not answer questions about whether a written memo would be issued.
The federal government last year began reviewing deportation cases to determine which ones should be top priority and which ones might be shelved. Government attorneys weigh factors such as a person's criminal record, family ties and community relations in making their decisions. ICE officials said at the time that long-term same-sex relationships could be included under the family ties criteria.
As of July 20, government attorneys had reviewed more than 355,000 deportation cases and determined about 6 percent qualified to be placed on hold, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At least half a dozen same-sex couples who were at risk of being separated have won temporary reprieves, either from immigration judges or under the broader review.
Immigrant advocates have criticized the program for failing to help more immigrants, while gay rights advocates have continued pushing for a blanket moratorium on deportations of foreign nationals who are legally married to same-sex spouses or in long-term gay relationships.
Supporters of stricter limits on immigration have decried it as a way of circumventing Congress.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, questioned how the Obama administration could simply contradict the 1996 law passed by Congress known as the Defense of Marriage Act.
"I just don't see how you can exercise discretion as though they're spouses if they're not spouses under federal law," said Krikorian, whose group wants more limits on immigration. "It doesn't even matter what you think about DOMA."
In this week's letter, Democratic lawmakers accused Homeland Security officials of overlooking binational same-sex couples for prosecutorial discretion — even though agency officials said almost a year ago that same-sex marriages and partnerships would be considered a positive factor in their cases.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit seeking green cards on behalf of five foreign citizens married to gay or lesbian Americans has been put on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to take up several other cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act.
Taxin reported from Orange County, Calif.