New guidelines being drafted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will recognize committed same-sex couples as families when considering requests to stop deportation cases, according to an agency letter to members of Congress.
Advocates for marriage equality called the change "a huge step forward" that will keep same-sex couples from being separated over what they see as outdated immigration laws.
"It's the first time that the federal government has recognized the relationship between a gay or lesbian American and an immigrant as a positive factor," said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, an advocacy group in Washington.
The revision to those guidelines continues the Obama administration's policy of granting exemptions from enforcement to immigrants who are not considered an enforcement priority.
The measure represents a reprieve from deportations for only some couples of mixed national origin. It does not allow same-sex couples to file immigration petitions for legal residency and eventual citizenship.
"It's not equal access to green cards, which is what we really need," Tiven added, "but it's certainly another building block."
The letter from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says she has directed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to relay to field offices that "the phrase 'family relationships' includes long-term, same-sex partners" and could be considered a factor under prosecutorial discretion rules.
"I am thrilled that the Obama Administration has taken to heart my concern about the need to explicitly protect LGBT immigrant families from being torn apart by needless and unwarranted immigration enforcement actions," Nadler said.
The Obama administration has ceased to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but the matter remains in litigation. One Long Island couple is among several who filed a pending lawsuit in April seeking their immigration petitions to be recognized.
Some advocates interpreted the agency's action, especially coming so close before an election, as a signal that the administration wants broader reforms.
"We have seen the Obama administration not only speak up in support of equality but also in the last year or so take action," said David Kilmnick, chief executive of the Long Island GLBT Services Network. "That makes me feel great as an American and gives me hope in the future."