News / USA

US to Reconsider Gay Couples' Immigration Petitions

Julian Marsh, left, with his husband Tray Popov, a Bulgarian graduate student, are the first gay couple in the States to have their application for immigration benefits approved after landmark Supreme Court ruling.
Julian Marsh, left, with his husband Tray Popov, a Bulgarian graduate student, are the first gay couple in the States to have their application for immigration benefits approved after landmark Supreme Court ruling.
A new decision by the Obama administration could make it easier for love to reach beyond borders. U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement issued new guidelines Friday ordering a system-wide review of visa petitions denied solely on the basis of sexual preference.

U.S. Customs and Immigration Services said it will reopen relevant petitions or applications dating back to February 23, 2011, when President Barack Obama said it was unconstitutional for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to bar same-sex couples from receiving federal, tax and retirement benefits.

The new guidelines expand a directive the Department of Homeland Security issued last month after the Supreme Court struck down part of DOMA. In the directive, DHS Chief Janet Napolitano announced same-sex couples can secure legal permanent residency, or green cards, for their foreign spouses the same way heterosexual couples can.

The legal advocacy group Immigration Equality says as many as 36,000 couples could be affected by the decision. The New York-based group welcomed the new development on Friday.

“We’re very pleased with the guidance that came out today,” said Victoria Neilson, the group’s legal director. “It’s great to see they’re going to be reopening these cases on their own where they can and they’ve given an email address where couples can write to as well.”

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said last month his department has kept a record of each petition it has denied on the basis of same-sex marriage since February 2011, and that it was prepared to act.

Now, it is. USCIS said it would make a “concerted effort” to identify and alert the affected couples and it encouraged applicants to contact immigration services using the email address, USCIS-626@uscis.dhs.gov, if they believe their petition was denied because of their sexual preference.

USCIS said it also would reconsider petitions denied before February 23, 2011, if applicants notify the department by March 31, 2014.

Immigration officials have not said how many applications they have kept track of, or what nationalities are on the list. Neilson said since last month, her group has received 2,300 inquiries from bi-national couples about the Supreme Court decision on DOMA. Of those, she said about 11 percent of the foreign spouses are from Mexico; five percent each come from Canada and Brazil; four percent are from the Philippines and three percent come from the United Kingdom.

For those couples dealing with USCIS, she said, it’s all “good news.” Facing greater difficulty, Neilson said, are bi-national couples applying for work visas through U.S. State Department consulates around the world.

“We’ve been hearing from people abroad and going to consulates that they’ve been told the consulate can’t do anything until they get guidance from the State Department,” she said. “Even for simple applications like employment skilled worker visa, U.S. citizens can’t bring their spouse until they get guidance from State.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for information on when it would issue guidelines to its foreign branches on how to process same-sex couple visa requests.

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