Amid pressure from Democratic lawmakers, Homeland Security officials said Friday that a foreigner's longstanding same-sex relationship with a U.S. citizen could help stave off the threat of deportation.
Binational gay couples are eligible for consideration under a federal program designed to focus resources away from low-priority deportation cases and let officials spend more time tracking down convicted criminals, said Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.
However, the Obama administration will not automatically shelve deportation cases or process green card applications involving foreign citizens married to same-sex American partners.
Catron said her agency will continue to comply with a 1996 law that prohibits the government from recognizing same-sex relationships, even as Homeland Security takes these relationships into consideration when evaluating possible deportation.
The Obama administration last year said it considers the 1996 law unconstitutional and would no longer defend it in court.
Friday's statement, which builds on comments Homeland Security officials made last summer, came three days after 84 lawmakers demanded the agency put its position in writing to help protect same-sex couples from deportation.
Immigrant advocates welcomed the comments but said a formal policy still is needed.
"It is significant to me because it is expressly inclusive of LGBT families," said Lavi Soloway, an immigration attorney who represents a number of same-sex couples in deportation proceedings.
However, "as long as it's not in writing it doesn't mean that much for an individual in deportation," Soloway said.
That sentiment was echoed by Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, one of the authors of a letter this week urging the federal government to recognize couples' ties in a memo or field guidance.
The statement was first reported on Thursday by the online news site BuzzFeed.
Homeland Security officials did not answer questions about whether a written memo would be issued.
The federal government last year began reviewing deportation cases to determine which ones should be top priority and which ones might be shelved. Government attorneys weigh factors such as a person's criminal record, family ties and community relations in making their decisions.
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