Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in Newark have cancelled the deportation of Henry Velandia, closing a case that drew national attention for its possible ramifications for same-sex couples and undocumented immigrants. “I’m happy that I can still be with my husband,” Velendia said during an interview on MSNBC. “I can finally breathe again.”
A 27-year-old salsa dancer from Venezuela, Velandia married Josh Vandiver, an American citizen and a graduate student at Princeton University, last year. Even though Valendia had overstayed his work visa, the spouses of undocumented immigrants can usually petition for legal residency for their partners. But the Defense of Marriage Act denies this right to same-sex couples—even those married legally. ICE scheduled an immigration hearing for Velandia on May 7, which could easily have resulted in his immediate deportation. Instead, the judge presiding over the case chose to place a hold on his deportation, awaiting the outcome of a similar case involving a same-sex couple in which attorney general Eric Holder intervened.
Even though the Obama administration has said it will not defend DOMA in court, the Justice Department has stated it will continue to enforce the act. The cancellation of Mr. Velandia’s deportation represents an apparent departure from this position, providing advocates for same-sex couples and undocumented immigrants a substantial and unexpected victory.
The decision follows the release of new guidelines from ICE, which expand the criteria federal attorneys and agents can consider in choosing whether to deport undocumented immigrants. The internal memo encourages ICE officials to focus on those convicted of violent crimes or repeated immigration violations in pursuing deportation cases.
The memo recommends leniency for immigrants who meet certain qualifications, including those enrolled in college or serving in the military. As the International Business Times notes, the document also lists “ties and contributions to the community, including family relationships,” as positive factors in weighing deportation. [IBT]
“We still have a long way to go,” Vandiver said, speaking to the plight of other same-sex couples in the same situation. “But this is a huge step and we’re happy.”