Blog of Rights

Important Breakthrough for LGBT Immigrant Families

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office & Joanne Lin, Washington Legislative Office at 1:57pm

In August, over 80 members of Congress, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), wrote to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requesting recognition, explicitly and in writing, of the ties of a same-sex partner or spouse as a positive factor for determining discretionary relief in immigration cases.  On Friday, it was reported that DHS had announced it would be issuing new, written guidance providing that relief to LGBT immigrant families. 

This news is long overdue, particularly for couples like Bradford Wells and Anthony John Makk, a gay California couple who, despite marrying seven years prior in Massachusetts, faced the unthinkable last year – the threat of permanent separation after nearly two decades together, due to Anthony’s impending deportation – a reality further complicated by the fact that Anthony is the primary caregiver of Bradford, who is living with AIDS.  Thankfully, this past June, the couple won a two-year reprieve against the threat of deportation, but only after Pelosi, aided by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and California State Senator Mark Leno, personally intervened on the couple’s behalf.

In explaining the forthcoming guidance, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote:

In an effort to make clear the definition of the phrase “family relationships,” I have directed ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to disseminate written guidance to the field that the interpretation of the phrase “family relationships” includes long-term, same-sex partners.

All of this originally stems from June 2011, when ICE Director John Morton first announced the agency’s prosecutorial discretion initiative.  Family relationships were identified as a key positive factor in exercising prosecutorial discretion in immigration cases, and in August of that year, DHS outlined a number of steps that would be taken to provide relief for low-priority immigration cases.  At the time, a senior administration official told Metro Weekly:

The prosecutorial discretion memo provides for the use of discretion for people with strong community ties, with community contributions and with family relationships. We consider LGBT families to be families in this context.

While certainly a positive statement, the ACLU said then that the devil would ultimately be in the details.  The problem of course was that the details, beyond statements from administration officials, never came. 

With Friday’s announcement and the promise that DHS will be disseminating written guidance making clear that “family relationships” include LGBT immigrant families, DHS is taking an important and very welcome step forward.  Hopefully, it will help to ensure that families like Bradford and Anthony and thousands of others like them across the country will no longer have to live in a constant state of fear over the possibility of permanent separation.  At the end of the day, what matters is not the particular makeup of a family, but the love and commitment clearly evident within it.

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