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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.

Lgbt immigration rights
Santiago Ortiz and Pablo Garcia (top right) are one of five married, binational LGBT couples involved in a federal law suit against the Defense of Marriage Act through Immigration Equality, an advocacy organization devoted to fighting for immigrant rights for same-sex couples. (Immigration Equality/Courtesy)

DOMA on Trial: Obama administration spares LGBT couples with family ties

As the Department of Homeland Security eases up on married LGBT immigrants, five couples are suing for equal protection in a fight to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

Pablo Garcia has been in the United States illegally since 1992, a year after he met the love of his life in his native Venezuela.

Garcia married his long-term partner, Santiago Ortiz, in Connecticut last year and the two live happily in New York City.

Ortiz was born in New York and is an American citizen, but the couple’s marriage has not afforded Garcia the same rights and liberties he would have access to if he and his partner were heterosexual. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) precludes US citizens from petitioning for green cards on behalf of a same-sex spouse.

That means that Garcia cannot accompany Ortiz, who is HIV positive, when he travels abroad to receive treatment. And when Garcia’s father died in 1998, he couldn’t attend the funeral in Caracas for fear he wouldn’t be allowed reentry to the US.

In April, Immigration Equality, an advocacy group focused on seeking relief for same-sex households that are “binational” like Garcia and Ortiz, levied the first federal lawsuit on behalf of such couples as a challenge to Section 3 of DOMA.

“We've been hiding out in clear view. It's like we're under the radar”
~Santiago Ortiz

Garcia and Ortiz are one of five married couples named in the complaint suing for equal protection and immigration rights, and the case their only hope to live together legally without fear of deportation until DOMA is overturned.

"We've been hiding out in clear view. It's like we're under the radar," said Ortiz. Luckily for them, "New York is a city where you really get lost in the maze," he said.

Now, Immigration Equality and their plaintiffs may be a little bit closer to winning their case, and over 36,000 households could be affected by a memo issued last week by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano clarified in a new guidance to ICE on Friday that the government would no longer be prioritizing the deportation of illegal immigrants, specifically LGBT individuals, with strong family ties in the US.

The memo, released to the public on Tuesday, specifies that the idea of "family" also "encompasses two adults who are in a committed, long-term, same-sex relationship."

"There is a light at the end of the tunnel now," said Steve Ralls, Communications Director for Immigration Equality, about the guidance to ICE. "Things are certainly looking rosier."

Administration clarifies

ICE Director John Morton advised agency personnel in a July 2011 memo on what to look for when considering deportation. In an effort to not waste resources, this guidance is to be applied by ICE officers and attorneys to a number of enforcement decisions that are made as an individual is moved through the system toward deportation. It instructs agents to take certain factors into consideration when making decisions and in a 19-point list of possible factors that could contribute to officers not moving toward further action, "family relationships" and "whether the person has a US citizen or permanent resident spouse, child, or parent" are clearly stated.

However, what was not clear was whether members of LGBT families were meant to be part of this consideration. After 84 members of Congress, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), wrote a letter to Napolitano demanding the administration's policy on LGBT immigration rights be made more clear – in writing – the happy news was returned.

"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," wrote Napolitano in a letter to those lawmakers last month. The Obama administration says this is a reinforcement of existing policy.

In response, Pelosi issued a statement saying more needed to be done, but that the written guidance will provide "clarity and confidence to families." Nadler said that he was "thrilled," according to the Washington Blade.

Immigration lawyers are similarly pleased with the guidance because it introduced the concept of "prosecutorial discretion," which can move individuals out immediate danger of deportation if they possess some of these factors.

Edward Farwell, an associate immigration attorney with Joyce & Associates in Boston says he has an LGBT client whose case will likely be impacted by the memo and has been

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