The Obama administration has asked immigration officials to treat gay couples as family members, or the same way as those having heterosexual relationship, in deportation cases, according to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi, a Democrat, says she has received a letter from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano which says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been ordered to direct its field offices "that the interpretation of the phrase 'family relationships' includes long-term, same-sex partners," Reuters reported Saturday.
The Homeland Security's new directive brings in "a measure of clarity and confidence to families dealing with separation in immigration cases," Pelosi said in a statement. "Our nation is served when loving families are kept together."
Pelosi added, the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which forbids federal recognition of same-sex marriage and extension of federal benefits, such as Social Security, to gay and lesbian couples, needs to be relegated "to the dustbin of history."
Napolitano's letter states, "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."
Gay activists have been seeking the move. "It will mark the very first time that lesbian and gay couples have been recognized within immigration policy for relief," The Associated Press quoted Steve Ralls, the spokesman for advocacy group Immigration Equality, as saying.
"This is a huge step forward," group's director Rachel B. Tiven said in a statement on Friday. "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."
According to the Williams Institute, the United States had about 29,000 same-sex couples comprising of a U.S. citizen and a citizen of another country as of 2010.
The administration claims it is acting within the scope of DOMA, as citizens are not allowed to sponsor same-sex spouses for green cards. But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, disagrees. "It's a camel's nose under the tent," he was quoted as saying. "If you get same-sex couples approved in terms of immigration, you can use that as an incremental approach to getting changes in other areas, such as in tax policy."
Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama said DOMA was unconstitutional and they would no longer defend the law in court. The Justice Department also called for the law to be subjected to a more rigorous standard to avoid discrimination against a minority group.
Responding to Obama's statement, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had then said that the president must enforce DOMA. "I helped sponsor the Defense of Marriage Act... I think the president should be, frankly, enforcing that act and I think we are drifting towards a terrible muddle which I think is going to be very, very difficult and painful to work our way out of." Marriage is between a man and a woman, he added. "I think that's what marriage ought to be and I would like to find ways to defend that view as legitimately and effectively as possible."