WASHINGTON --- More than 80 House Democrats called Wednesday for the government to officially state that same-sex relationships would be considered in immigration decisions, a year after the Obama administration announced it would begin allowing some undocumented immigrants to stay if they had significant family ties to the United States.
Although the administration said at the time that same-sex relationships would be considered equal to opposite-sex ones in its review of immigration cases, that has yet to be put into writing, which the members argued makes it relatively ineffective.
"Keeping loving families together, particularly in cases in which one partner or spouse is a U.S. citizen, should be a priority for immigration enforcement," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "The Department of Homeland Security has stated that their policy will positively factor in family ties, including those of LGBT couples, but we have now asked them to put this in writing to provide a measure of clarity to those enforcing our laws and confidence to families facing separation."
The Obama administration announced in August 2011 new prosecutorial discretion policies that would prioritize criminals and national security risks over young undocumented immigrants and people with ties to the United States. The memo didn't mention same-sex couples in any way, but senior administration officials told reporters at the time, when asked, that those families fit under the guidelines to be considered for deferred action.
In September 2011, House Democrats made their first request to DHS that it incorporate same-sex partnerships into its instruction. Since same-sex marriages are not recognized by the federal government under the Defense of Marriage Act, American citizens cannot petition for their partners or spouses to get green cards, meaning some run the risk of deportation if they stay in the United States without authorization to be with their families.
As they await change on DOMA, Democrats and advocacy groups argue the government should use deferred action to help same-sex couples, too. But since that guideline is not officially stated, the Democrats wrote that it may not be working.
"Until the policy regarding LGBT persons is put into writing, ICE enforcement officials and attorneys who are responsible for actually implementing DHS policy, plus other key stakeholders, may remain unaware of its existence," they wrote. "This may lead to continued and tragic separations of foreign nationals from their U.S. citizen same-sex spouses and partners. ... By issuing written guidance, DHS can keep LGBT families from being separated and thus prevent the irreparable, permanent harm to families that is caused by the so-called Defense of Marriage Act -- discrimination the Department of Justice has determined to be unconstitutional."
The letter states that Democrats were "extremely disappointed" by the response from DHS in October 2011, which read that "LGBT individuals' ties and contributions to the community are taken into account" -- but not specifically that their same-sex partners and spouses would be considered.
"In November 2011, DHS again missed an opportunity to unambiguously include LGBT relationships in its prosecutorial discretion guidance," the letter continued.
The members who signed the letter have also attempted to go at the issue legislatively, with two bills -- the Uniting American Families Act and the Reuniting Families Act -- that would change immigration law definitions to include same-sex partnerships.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the top sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, joined the letter Wednesday in support of the administration officially stating in its guidelines that same-sex couples would be considered as families in its immigration review.
"These LGBT families are critical parts of their communities, neighborhoods, and workforces," Nadler said. "To keep them intact, it is critical that the Administration put in writing its policy of providing prosecutorial discretion with deference to family ties among LGBT persons, and we again urge it to do so as quickly as possible."
The Template: California Proposition 187 (1994)
California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.
The Worst: Arizona SB 1070
The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. This law has been widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It requires state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there is "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believe was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But it has generated a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. A federal judge issued a ruling that blocked what critics saw as some of the law's harshest provisions. House: 35-31 (4/12/2011)
Following Arizona's Footsteps: Georgia HB 87
The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17
Verifying Authorized Workers: Pennsylvania HB 1502
This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>
A Spin Off of Arizona: Utah HB 497
Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)
The Most Comprehensive: Florida HB-1C
Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010
The Hot Seat: Alabama HB 56
The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>