WASHINGTON -- Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday that she will instruct immigration agents to consider same-sex relationships the same as heterosexual ones in determining whether an individual should be deported, a victory for advocates and members of Congress who worried verbal instructions could be ignored.
Although the administration had previously told reporters and others that same-sex relationships will be taken into account when making deportation decisions, putting it in writing for field officers is considered to be an important change.
"This is a huge step forward," Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of gay rights and reform group Immigration Equality, said in a statement. "Until now, LGBT families and their lawyers had nothing to rely on but an oral promise that prosecutorial discretion would include all families. Today, DHS has responded to Congress and made that promise real."
DHS released guidelines in 2011 instructing agents to consider a variety of factors -- including family relationships, the age an individual came to the U.S. and other ties to the country -- when determining whether the immigrant is high-priority for deportation.
More than 80 House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), called in late July for the Department of Homeland Security to add a specific mention of same-sex couples to its guidelines.
Napolitano responded on Thursday to that letter with individual, but identical, messages to each of those members. There will be official guidance next week to ICE offices around the country.
"In an effort to make clear the definition of the phrase 'family relationships,' I have directed ICE to disseminate written guidance to the field that the interpretation of the phrase 'family relationships' includes long-term, same-sex partners," she wrote in the letter. "As with every other factor identified in Director Morton's June 11 memorandum, the applicability of the 'family relationships' factor is weighed on an individualized basis in the consideration of whether prosecutorial discretion is appropriate in a given case."
Honda, one of the signatories of the letter, said in a statement Friday that he will continue to push for immigration reform legislation, such as his Reuniting American Families Act, which would allow Americans to petition for legal status for their same-sex partners in the same way heterosexual couples can.
"No one should have to choose between their spouse and their country, and no family should be left out of the immigration system," he said in a statement.
Judy Rickard, an American, and her partner, Karin Bogliolo, who is a British citizen, heard the news on Thursday from Honda. Bogliolo entered the country legally under a tourist visa, and is still authorized to stay because her application for a green card is pending. But her application could be turned down because the federal government does not recognize same-sex couples under the Defense of Marriage Act.
"We're glad beyond measure that someone is recognizing our status and making us safer," Rickard said. "It doesn't solve everything, but I'm confident now that Karin won't be told to leave the country."
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"I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman," Mitt Romney said.
"This is a major turning point in the history of American civil rights," said New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. "No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people - and I have no doubt that this will be no exception. The march of freedom that has sustained our country since the Revolution of 1776 continues, and no matter what setbacks may occur in a given state, freedom will triumph over fear and equality will prevail over exclusion. Today's announcement is a testament to the President's convictions, and it builds on the courageous stands that so many Americans have taken over the years on behalf of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, stretching back to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village."
"I applaud President Obama for announcing his support for marriage equality today," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) "For the first time in this nation's history, a sitting president has shown the courage and leadership to stand up for all American families by pledging to support the fundamental right of every person to marry the person they love, and to have that marriage fully respected. I commend President Obama for this brave and honest step. Those who seek to politicize civil rights for personal or political gain will certainly attack him, but the course toward marriage equality and justice is the correct and inevitable path."
"I'm thrilled!" longshot GOP presidential candidate Fred Karger told HuffPost, referring to Obama's embrace of marriage equality. Karger is the first openly gay Republican or Democrat to run for president. "The Karger pressure has worked," he joked. "Particularly after the defeat in North Carolina, we welcome him to the full equality position."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen
Senator Chris Coons
"I have been blessed to have a long and happy marriage. I strongly believe all Americans deserve that same opportunity," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.)
"While President Obama has played politics on this issue, the Republican Party and our presumptive nominee Mitt Romney have been clear. We support maintaining marriage between one man and one woman and would oppose any attempts to change that," said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Christine C. Quinn
"Barack Obama just announced he supports same-sex marriage," Mike Huckabee wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters. "Nancy Pelosi immediately jumped on the announcement and emailed Democrat activists nationwide promising to continue their fight. This is going to be a defining issue this election. Obama, Pelosi and the Democrats have been a complete failure on economic issues so now they are going to focus on issues that will rile up their base. Well, Mr. President it's going to rile up our folks also. Men and women who support traditional marriage."
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"President Obama's support for marriage equality marks an important moment for civil rights in America," said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), who co-sponsored legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). "We simply can not treat same sex couples as second-class citizens in our country. Marriage equality is one of the most significant civil rights battles of our time and is critical to guaranteeing the equal protection under the law promised to every American in the Constitution. The President's support for marriage equality should inspire Congress, Governors and state legislatures to advance civil rights for all Americans."
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"This is an historic moment and I applaud the President for his decision and courage," Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said. "One of the greatest and most liberating human emotions is acceptance. And what the President did today was accept that the quality of love two people share is more important than their gender. The President's decision required him look within and engage his heart. It is truly wonderful and welcome news."
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"As an early and strong proponent of Marriage Equality, I am very happy that President Obama has made this announcement," said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) "Marriage Equality is a matter of basic human rights and all of America's same-sex families are now closer to having their unions recognized by our government. This is an important step in our country's march toward achieving true justice and equality for all."
"President Obama's public support for marriage equality is an historic affirmation of the fundamental American value of equal rights for all," said Howard Dean. "Having signed the nation's first law allowing Civil Unions as Governor of Vermont, I'm also proud to see our president affirm the belief that I and so many other Americans hold: loving and committed couples should have the same benefits that are extended through marriage. Marriage equality is a right and a benefit to all families."
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Sen. Barbara Boxer
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