Congressional advocates for LGBT immigration reform launched a two-pronged offensive Thursday with the reintroduction of the Uniting American Families Act and the release of a letter from 48 House members urging the Obama administration in part to suspend deportations faced by married gay spouses.
The Thursday letter from Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California and Democratic colleagues called on Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to mitigate the discrimination faced by binational married couples following the administration's February announcement that it considers the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional. The 1996 law bars married gay couples from the citizen sponsorship rights afforded heterosexual married couples.
The release of the letter was timed with the reintroduction of UAFA, which would help keep most binational couples together by making family-based immigration inclusive of same-sex partners of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
But the letter also highlights the continued divide between advocates who argue that immigration officials can protect married gay couples and an administration that has said that DOMA precludes such action.
Lofgren, ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, called on the Department of Justice and DHS to suspend deportation proceedings and a put a temporary hold on green card adjudications for gay married couples pending either legal resolution or legislative repeal of DOMA.
"Taking these steps would not flout or disrespect existing law, as it would not provide permanent immigration relief to married couples of the same sex, currently prohibited by Section 3 of DOMA," Lofgren wrote. "Rather, it would prevent the potentially irreparable harm that would be caused by application of a law that is currently under review by the courts and the U.S. Congress.
"As the country grapples with the question of whether DOMA is constitutional and should be the law of the land," Lofgren continued, "we ask that you take steps to temporarily preserve the status quo and protect American citizens and their spouses from avoidable harm."
Lofgren's letter follows a similar one sent to Holder and Napolitano last week by 12 senators, including John Kerry of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, urging relief for such couples.
But thus far the administration appears unwilling to do so. Asked whether DHS has responded to the senators' letter, DHS spokesman Adam Fetcher told The Advocate in a statement, "The administration will respond to the members of Congress directly. Pursuant to the Attorney General's guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the Executive Branch, including DHS, will continue to enforce it unless and until Congress repeals it or there a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional."
The House version of UAFA, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, currently has 98 original cosponsors, though a source said he's "very confident" that it will be filed with 100 cosponsors on board. The previous bill had 79 original cosponsors in the last congressional session and ultimately attracted a total of 136.
The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Vermont senator and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, has 14 cosponsors.
Of the Thursday letter, Immigration Equality spokesman Steve Ralls said, "Congresswoman Lofgren is leading a powerful and significant coalition in pressing DHS to treat lesbian and gay families fairly. The letter she has spearheaded includes a dozen House Judiciary Committee members as well as every Democrat who sits on Judiciary's Immigration Subcommittee. Their call for an end to the separation of binational families, combined with a record number of original cosponsors for today's reintroduction of the Uniting American Families Act by Congressman Nadler and Senator Leahy, has placed binational families on the congressional agenda and at the forefront of the movement for LGBT family recognition."
At a Thursday afternoon press conference, House UAFA sponsors are scheduled to be joined by Shirley Tan and Jay Mercado, a Pacifica, Calif., couple, and their 14-year-old twin boys, Joriene and Jashley. Tan helped put a face on the issue in 2009, when she was arrested and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. A native of the Philippines, Tan was spared deportation as the result of a private bill introduced by California senator Dianne Feinstein.
Feinstein reintroduced the bill on behalf of Tan last month; as a result, she is allowed to remain in the country for the next two years. Though relieved that her own family will not face impending separation, Tan said, "I hope that this issue about immigration can be resolved soon for all the other families."
At least one binational gay couple, Henry Velandia and Josh Vandiver, currently face imminent deportation proceedings. Velandia, a Venezuelan citizen, married his American spouse in 2009 in Connecticut, and has a deportation hearing scheduled May 6.
"The administration has both an opportunity and responsibility to complement legislative efforts now by ensuring that all binational couples are protected from deportation or separation until we have achieved inclusion and equality in family-based immigration," said Lavi Soloway, the couple's attorney and cofounder of Stop the Deportations. "If the administration fails to act, irreversible legal consequences of deportation will mean that many binational couples and their families will be torn apart permanently and will unable to access the family unification immigration process even after DOMA is repealed or struck down by the Supreme Court."
Both Nadler and Lofgren pushed early for halting deportations in such cases after the administration's February announcement that it would no longer defend DOMA in pending legal challenges.
"It's a heartbreaking situation across the United States," Lofgren told The Advocate in March. "This administration, as with any administration, has tremendous flexibility under current law to make its own judgment for fair treatment" of such couples.
Also Thursday, Oregon senator Jeff Merkley reintroduced the Senate version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The House introduced its version last week, one not expected to pass in Republican-controlled House -- but nonetheless an important lobbying and organizing tool, advocates say.