WASHINGTON — The government will no longer automatically deny applications for immigration benefits for same-sex couples, opting to put them on hold until it gets some legal advice on the Obama administration's decision to stop defending the law that prohibits gay marriage
The decision to put off deciding the fate of applications for immigration benefits from gays and lesbians married to U.S. citizens is not a change in policy, said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Until USCIS announced the temporary change, applications for immigration benefits for foreign nationals married to a U.S. citizen of the same gender were automatically denied because the Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.
In February, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer defend the constitutionality of the law. Now, USCIS is awaiting legal direction from the Department of Homeland Security on how to handle applications for benefits from gay couples.
It wasn't immediately clear how many gay U.S. citizens have applied to bring their foreign spouses to the United States.
Bob Deasy, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the halt on automatic rejection is "a step in the right direction."
The decision not to defend the law has already affected at least one immigration case. Earlier this month an immigration judge in New York postponed a deportation order against an Argentine lesbian married to a U.S. citizen.
Noemi Masliah, an immigration lawyer for 35-year-old Monica Alcota, said the judge's decision to adjourn her client's deportation case until December gives the government a chance to fully review her petition for legal residency based on her marriage.
"The right thing to do, and this judge did do the right thing, is to adjourn this case and see what happens down the road," Masliah said. "Given that the law is so up in the air ... it's hard to enforce at this point in a negative way."
Masliah, who is part of a group trying to push the government to stop denying immigration benefits to same sex couples, said she hopes that all such applications will be put on hold indefinitely until the future of the Defense of Marriage Act is settled in court.