05/05/2011 06:34 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2011

Eric Holder Halts Deportation For Man In Civil Union

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder vacated a deportation order Thursday for a man who, if he were married to a woman rather than in a civil union with a man, would likely be eligible to remain in the country.

Holder announced he would use his discretion to ask the Board of Immigration Appeals to reconsider the application of New Jersey resident Paul Wilson Dorman to stay in the country, and to determine whether his deportation order was based on the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that bans same-sex marriages. Although the Obama administration announced in February that it would no longer defend DOMA, the government has continued to deport gay men and women who are legally married to U.S. citizens.

The administration has come under fire for barring same-sex couples from legal avenues to keep them in the same country. While heterosexual men and women can petition for legal status for their foreign spouses, same-sex couples must look for other routes to keep their non-native partners in the country legally -- even in states that recognize gay marriage -- under DOMA.

When the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend DOMA, DHS briefly put deportation of same-sex married couples on hold. But it quickly announced there would be no official policy change on deportation based on the DOMA decision.

About 24,000 couples in the United States include one foreign-born partner, researcher Gary Gates at UCLA's Williams Institute told the Washington Postin September.

Although Holder’s order could keep Dorman in the United States, it does not necessarily mean other same-sex couples are safe from deportation based on DOMA. The Board of Immigration Appeals does not have jurisdiction over Constitutional issues, meaning the ruling will not establish whether same-sex couples face discrimination on immigration issues based on DOMA.

Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing for the government to eliminate rules that they say discriminate against same sex couples. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) re-introduced a bill on Thursday that would allow gay and lesbian couples to petition for legal status for foreign-born partners, while Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) have also pushed for policy changes.

Steve Ralls, communication director for advocacy group Immigration Equality, said the administration should bar immigration officials from denying legal status to same-sex couples based on DOMA, at least until questions over the law’s constitutionality are settled.

Still, Ralls said Holder’s order was “a step in the right direction.”

“We are certainly pleased that the attorney general is now looking at what options now exist to keep gay immigrant families together,” he said. “We’re optimistic and hopeful.”