Lottery Winners in Same-Sex Marriages: Don’t Be Deterred by Bad Advice!

If you won this year’s Diversity Visa lottery, and are working on getting a green card or immigrant visa to the U.S., and you’re part of a same-sex couple, you were probably excited to hear of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Windsor decision. By overturning a major portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), this cleared the way for same-sex couples in legally recognized marriages (whether they occurred in the U.S. or another country) to enjoy immigration as well as other benefits.

There’s just one problem: The U.S. State Department and other immigration authorities have been classically slow to catch on. Even after the Windsor decision, some of them were reportedly advising would-be Diversity Visa applicants that no, their same-sex marriages don’t count, and they can’t bring their spouses to the United States.

That’s wrong advice. The government memos are supposedly flying, and hopefully by now DV visa applicants are not being steered in the wrong direction. But if you gave up on bringing your same-sex partner before, it’s time for some quick action now (and ideally a call to an attorney). Even if you’re not married yet, it’s not too late, as described in, “Won the Diversity Visa Lottery: Can I marry my same-sex partner and bring her to the U.S.?

Gay Man From Cameroon Successfully Appeals Claim for Withholding of Removal

map-cameroonGood news on LGBT immigration cases just keeps rolling in. A recently come-to-light Board of Immigration Appeals (B.I.A.) decision (unpublished, issued in May of 2013) practically scolded the immigration judge (IJ) for denying the case of a gay man from Cameroon.

The applicant had applied for asylum and withholding of deportation based on his sexual orientation, past victimization in the form of sexual assaults, and Cameroon’s criminalization of homosexuality.

The man submitted his asylum claim far too late — many years after the one-year deadline on applying for this remedy, unfortunately. That left the B.I.A. with no apparent choice but to uphold the IJ’s denial of the asylum part of the application. But that still left the man’s claim for withholding of removal, a last-ditch remedy protecting would-be asylees from deportation. (Withholding does not, however, lead to a green card like asylum does.)

To be eligible for withholding of removal, an applicant must prove that it’s more likely than not that he would be persecuted or tortured upon return to his home country. The IJ denied this applicant based on a finding that his testimony was implausible and inconsistent, and therefore not credible (believable). Here’s where things get interesting.

A classic inconsistency in an asylum case would be, for instance, where an applicant states in his Form I-589 application for asylum that his sister was threatened and his brother was killed, but testifies in court that his sister was killed and his brother threatened. No matter how horrific the facts, a judge could hardly grant asylum to someone who couldn’t get key aspects of his story straight. Mixing up dates of critical events is also a reason for some applicants to be denied on credibility grounds.

But the inconsistencies noted by the IJ in this man’s case (according to the B.I.A.’s characterization of them) were far more subtle, and included certain judgments about human behavior that the B.I.A. called “erroneous” and I might call “out on a limb.”

For instance, the IJ couldn’t believe that the applicant “could not pinpoint the time that he realized that he was homosexual.” Before I start spluttering about how many people can remember the moment when they determined their own sexuality one way or another, I’ll simply repeat the B.I.A’s statement that this finding was “speculative, at best, and is an inappropriate consideration in a credibility analysis.” The applicant did, after all (quoting the B.I.A. again) “repeatedly state[] that he did not know and that he was still a child when many of these events occurred.”

The IJ also said that “it was illogical for his parents to acknowledge that he told them he was homosexual, but continue to pressure him to pursue heterosexual relationships.” Well, surely they wouldn’t be the first parents to hold onto every last hope that their child would do what society expects! Actually, the B.I.A. said it just as well: “The Immigration Judge provided no support for his belief that parents could not be supportive, yet  pressure their child to pursue a more traditional and acceptable way of life.”

This case isn’t completely sewn up yet (as far as I know). The B.I.A. remanded it back to the Immigration Judge for a final decision, giving the Department of Homeland Security a chance to run some security checks. But based on the B.I.A.’s finding, there should at last be some good news coming to this applicant.

Is the Moon Blue? Priority Dates Current in Family Category 2A

moonThis doesn’t happen very often – only “once in a blue moon,” as they say: Priority Dates for the spouses and children of a U.S. lawful permanent resident (LPR), in category 2A of the family preference system, are shown as “Current” (with a “C”) in the State Department Visa Bulletin for August, 2013.

A wait that usually lasts two to five years has been reduced to zero.

By way of background, the Priority Date is the all-important place in line to get a U.S. immigrant visa, or green card. Because only a limited number are, by law, allocated annually, and demand always exceeds supply, the visas are doled out on a first-applied, first-served basis. More literally, they are based on the date that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received the I-130 visa petition from the U.S. LPR that started the application process on the immigrant’s behalf.

Normally, only when the Visa Bulletin shows a date that is the same or later than the immigrant’s Priority Date is the immigrant allowed to go ahead with the green card application. But the “current” situation is abnormal — everyone can, potentially, move forward, regardless of how long ago they applied or who is in line ahead of them.

How long this will last is anyone’s guess. And intending immigrants in category 2A may need to act quickly to take advantage of it. For more information, and guidance on what to do next, see Nolo’s update, “Spouse or Child of LPR? Your Priority Date Is Current!

Helpful NYT Chart on Federal Benefits Available to Same-Sex Couples

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANice graphics, nice summary: If you’re a member of a gay couple, you’ll want to check out this New York Times explanation of how the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down major portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) affects your rights depending on where in the U.S. you live.

The article’s statement that “Your spouse can apply for a permanent resident visa, known as a green card, for you,” however, needs a footnote.

In terms of basic eligibility rights, it’s absolutely true. But because of various penalties that primarily affect people who entered the U.S. without inspection (EWI, in immigration law lingo), actually claiming that green card may not be so easy. See Nolo’s article, “Entered the U.S. Illegally and Married a U.S. Citizen: What Are the Immigration Options?” for more information.

 

First Green Cards to Same-Sex Couples Being Issued!

ringsAs announced in an article by Julia Preston in the June 30 New York Times, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has already begun approving marriage-based green cards for legally married same-sex couples. (We should expect an announcement from the Guinness Book of World Records next, because I think this is the fastest that this gigantoid bureaucracy has moved on anything, ever. The couple was surprised. Their lawyer was surprised.)

The important thing to realize about this action, however, is that the couple’s application was filed previous to the Supreme Court decision overturning core portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA (which had created the bar to same-sex-marriage-based green cards in the first place). Apparently a number of same-sex couples anticipated DOMA’s eventual demise, no doubt based on the Obama Administration’s 2011 declaration that DOMA was unconstitutional and shouldn’t be enforced, and they submitted visa petition or green card applications in advance of any certainty that they would be approved. (Just one of those individual acts of courage that adds up to a movement . . . .) The couple in the article submitted a green card application last February.

What this recent USCIS action doesn’t mean is that the agency is prepared for new applications right this minute, or will act this quickly on them. The normal turnaround for an I-130 (the visa petition that the U.S. citizen or permanent resident would file if the immigrant is either overseas or is in the U.S. but ineligible to use the “adjustment of status” procedure, most likely because of an illegal entry), is about six months. (You can view USCIS’s not entirely reliable time estimates on its Case Status page.)

The normal turnaround time when the immigrant is already in the U.S. AND is eligible to use the U.S.-based adjustment of status procedure, in which case the U.S. citizen spouse can file an I-130 visa petition together with the rest of the green card packet, depends on backups at their local USCIS District Office. This process usually also takes several months before the couple is called in for the personal interview at which the green card should be approved.

Add to all this the fact that USCIS hasn’t issued any guidelines about how it will consider same-sex marriage cases and, if you’re in a same-sex binational married couple, you’ve got good reasons to hold off and consult a lawyer before actually submitting anything. At least a few days. We need to make sure no unhappy surprises turn up in the guidelines USCIS issues.

There’s reason to hope that the guidelines will be fairly straightforward, however. USCIS has promised to issue them promptly, and Janet Napolitano stated today that, “. . . I have directed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to review immigration visa petitions filed on behalf of a same-sex spouse in the same manner as those filed on behalf of an opposite-sex spouse.”

No matter what, now is a good time to start figuring out what you’ll need for the green card application and to get the various forms and documents ready. You’ll find information on marriage-based visas and green cards here on Nolo’s website.

SCOTUS, POTUS, and DOMA: Victory for Same-Sex Binational Couples

gaywedNice quote from the President, regarding today’s Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Windsor striking down the bulk of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman (and thereby blocked all manner of federal rights and benefits to anyone who didn’t fit the definition):

“I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it. . . . I’ve directed the Attorney General to work with other members of my Cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for Federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.”

So, it looks like it’s full steam ahead for implementing this law in the immigration context. Up until now, same-sex marriages didn’t count for a thing if the couple wanted to obtain a green card or visa for the foreign-born person. Today, these marriages do count, just the same as anyone else’s. All that matters is that they were legal in the state or country where they took place (so same-sex couples who live in places where same-sex marriage is NOT legal will have to find someplace else to get married in order to take advantage of this ruling).

Already, a New York immigration judge has reportedly halted the deportation proceedings of a gay Colombian man who is legally married to a U.S. citizen. Another male couple in New York, scheduled for a marriage-based green card interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) yesterday, had their interview postponed until after the DOMA decision — with hopefully an approval on the horizon. (It must have taken some guts to apply for the green card in the first place, knowing that if DOMA was upheld, their case would be denied and the noncitizen could be placed in deportation proceedings.)

The immigration bar has, so far, come up with no reasons why same-sex immigrant couples shouldn’t start filing their applications for green cards right away — with the small caveat that this process is harder than you might think (even for opposite-sex couples), and we still don’t know how quickly USCIS will actually adapt to this new regime. Don’t be surprised if you get some weird requests for evidence during the application process.

This decision should also allow noncitizens coming to the U.S. on temporary visas (H-1B, L-1, J-1, and so on) to obtain derivative visas for their same-sex spouses. (Here, at least, the U.S. government showed some flexibility in the past, by issuing the same-sex spouse a tourist, B-2 visa.)

Scheduling an in-person consult with an immigration attorney is an excellent idea.

For more information, see Nolo’s update, “Same-Sex Marriage Now a Basis for U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence (a Green Card).”

Fee Hikes an Overlooked Aspect of Proposed Immigration Reform

mex border fenceThe legislation being hammered out in the Senate right now contains some pretty expensive elements. Specifically, committing even more resources than have already been thrown at the project of turning the U.S. border with Mexico into an impenetrable barrier is going to cost big bucks. Some $40 billion, to be spent on new border security agents, new drones, new fencing, and so on.

And where will this money come from? Much media attention was devoted recently to a U.S. government report showing that, if the bill is passed, the U.S. government and economy will actually get a boost. New taxpayers will contribute to the system, more undocumented immigrants will start new businesses, and all will hum along happily.

But that shouldn’t obscure a basic reality of the legislation as it stands, containing a recent compromise amendment from Senators Corker, Hoeven, and others. As noted in a recent press release from the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association (AILA), the spending on this bill isn’t going to come from the taxes and economic activity generated by these hardworking immigrants. It looks, for all the world, like it’s going to come straight from the immigrants pockets, as fees when they file their applications for immigration benefits.

AILA explains, “a startling and little-publicized requirement of the amendment would be that all ‘mandatory enforcement expenditures under the Act’ would be funded not by appropriated funds but by additional fees charged to those petitioning through the regular, legal immigration process.”

How high could these fees go up? They’re already in the thousands of dollars for many applications.

The proposed amendment says not only, “the Secretary may adjust the amounts of the fees and penalties . . .  except for [certain] fines and penalties,” but “If the Secretary determines that adjusting the fees and penalties set out [above] will be insufficient or impractical to cover the costs of the mandatory enforcement expenditures in this Act, the Secretary may charge an additional surcharge on every immigrant and nonimmigrant petition filed with the Secretary in an amount designed to be the minimum proportional surcharge necessary to recover the annual mandatory enforcement expenditures in this legislation.”

Ouch! Sky’s the limit!

If you’re an immigrant who already has a path to a visa or green card, the best advice I can give is to make sure the process moves forward as quickly as possible, to win the race against time and this new legislation.

Happy Anniversary, DACA!

obamaThe program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or “DACA” was first announced by President Obama on June 15, 2012, just over a year ago. It gave undocumented young immigrants a means of avoiding deportation and obtaining work permits. 

Met at first with skepticism — “Will it be just a way to identify and deport undocumented people?” “Will it disappear in a few months if Obama is not reelected?” “Will it become irrelevant if Congress passes an immigration reform bill?” — DACA has gone on to provide some measure of stability, not to mention work permits, for over 520,000 young people. (See the USCIS “Data on Individual Applications and Petitions” page for monthly updates.) A relatively few 19,000 applications were rejected.

Although the rate of applications has reduced markedly since the program was first announced, it is still possible to apply! See the DACA-related articles on Nolo’s website for more information. And as we’ve seen, Congress is still in a tug-of-war over comprehensive immigration reform.

Is There Still a Chance for Same-Sex Couples to Win Immigration Rights in the Reform Bill?

gemA lot of interesting immigration-related matters have been hitting my email inbox lately. First there was this video on Upworthy, with the heading, “I’d Like To Think I’m An Informed Straight Ally, But I’m Embarrassed I Didn’t Know This.” If Brandon didn’t know, I’m going to guess a few other people also don’t know the following:

Regardless of its legality in the state or country where it took place, a same-sex marriage still, today, does not offer the noncitizen a path to a U.S. green card. And there’s precious little the couple can do to get the noncitizen any other long-term visa or right to stay in the U.S., either. The welcome mat is out for heterosexual married couples — potentially even if they met online a few months ago and have barely spoken in person, one might note — but federal law draws a bright line on this one. The video posted on Upworthy gives a wrenching look at an American/British male married couple who are trying to deal with the all-too-brief amounts of time that U.S. law lets them spend together.

It would be so easy to fix this: In fact, the language proposed by Senator Patrick Leahy as an amendment to the draft immigration reform bill is a model of simplicity, stating “an individual shall be considered a ‘spouse’ and a marriage shall be considered a ‘marriage’ for the purposes of this Act if (1) the marriage of the individual is valid in the State in which the marriage was entered into; or (2) in the case of a marriage entered into outside of any State, the marriage is valid in the place in which the marriage was entered into and the marriage could have been entered into in a State.’’

A few weeks ago, however, the headlines were all about the disappointment of LGBT advocates as Leahy announced that he was withdrawing this amendment, in the interests of passing the bill as a whole.

Yet according to the blogosphere and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, he has refiled it. And according to another email I received today, from Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, a briefing is being held for Congressional staffers today at which she and other LGBT advocates will testify to why immigration reform “must include all families.” Emily says, “My partner Tristin is from Canada. We met nearly ten years ago when Tristin was serving as a substitute tour manager for the Indigo Girls. We soon became friends and then slowly fell in love. Even though we are a completely committed family (which includes our six-month old daughter Cleo!), there is no way for me to sponsor Tristin for a green card to keep our family together. This is the story I will be sharing on Capitol Hill today.”

You’d think I’d be humming an Indigo Girls tune after writing this blog. (And I’d be happy to, really.) But the song going through my head is actually Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over.”

Packing a Weapon in a Carry-On Bag Could Get You Deported

xrayWith the recent announcement by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that its airline security staff discovered a record-breaking 65 firearms in carry-on bags last week, it seems like a good time to remind visa and green card holders of an important fact: Firearms crimes can get you deported from the United States. “Forgetting” that you packed a gun (which many of the people caught claimed) is not necessarily going to help you, either.

First, the basic TSA rule: You can carry a firearm in your checked baggage if you advise the airline first. But you cannot bring a weapon, explosive, or incendiary with you onto the plane, including in any carry-ons or other accessible property. Failure to comply with this is a civil violation, and you could be fined.

A civil violation is not, however, a crime; and U.S. immigration law specifies that anyone “convicted under any law of purchasing, selling, offering for sale, exchanging, using, owning, possessing, or carrying, or of attempting or conspiring to purchase, sell, offer for sale, exchange, use, own, possess, or carry, any weapon, part, or accessory which is a firearm or destructive device . . . in violation of any law is deportable.” (See Immigration and Nationality Act Section 237.)

But every airport is also located in some U.S. state — and state law may, in fact, criminalize the gun-toter’s actions. The person could be arrested for crimes with such descriptions as “carrying a concealed weapon in a restricted area,” or “unlawful possession of a weapon.” And those crimes could definitely make the person deportable. For more information on what it means to be “deportable,” and how to defend yourself in immigration court proceedings, see the “Crimes and U.S. Immigration” portion of Nolo’s website.