San Francisco Immigration Judge Grants Government Motion to Close Deportation Case Against Alex Benshimol
We learned today that deportation proceedings that threatened to tear apart Alex Benshimol and Douglas Gentry, a married gay binational couple in California, have been dropped by the government. This marks the second time in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement has agreed to close a deportation case involving a married same-sex couple, and the first such case to occur pursuant to the June 17 prosecutorial discretion guidelines issued by ICE Director John Morton.
Statement from Lavi Soloway:
|Alex & Doug protest outside|
San Francisco Immigration Court on July 13
This demonstrates that an interim solution can be achieved for married lesbian and gay binational couples facing deportation when ICE fairly applies its own guidelines and decides not to pursue deportation. By halting this deportation, ICE prevents a marriage from being torn part by DOMA, a statute that the President and the Attorney General have determined to be unconstitutional.
On July 13, Alex Benshimol and Doug Gentry of Cathedral City, California, appeared before San Francisco Immigration Judge Marilyn Teeter for their deportation hearing. Judge Teeter instructed the government to respond within 60 days to our lengthy and detailed request for administrative closure. Judge Teeter scheduled the next hearing for September 2013, postponing deportation proceedings for more than two years in the event that the government did not agree to close the case. On August 11, the Judge received and granted the government's Motion to Administratively Close deportation proceedings against Venezuelan Alex Benshimol. We received the decision today. This effectively ends the nightmare faced by Alex and his American husband, Doug Gentry.
On August 18, Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a case-by-case review of all current and future deportation cases.
Another DOMA deportation has been stopped, following a year-long campaign by the Stop The Deportations - The DOMA Project. While we have been successful at preventing DOMA from destroying marriages, one victory at a time, we still call on the Obama administration to institute a uniform policy in the form of a moratorium on all DOMA deportations that will make these case by case determinations unnecessary.
We are cautiously optimistic after the announcement this week by Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, that all 300,000 pending deportation cases will be reviewed for possible closure, including those impacting LGBT families. However, we do not yet know the mechanics of that process, nor how long it will take for the government working group to carry out its mission. In the meantime, we must continue to fight for each couple and for an end to DOMA deportations across the board."
Statement from Doug Gentry and Alex Benshimol:
“Alex and I are tremendously happy with Judge Teeter’s ruling. It’s like waking up from a bad dream. We’ve spent so many sleepless nights and lived with fear and anxiety. For ICE to exercise discretion and agree to close the case is extremely encouraging. This should bring hope to so many couples in our situation. As happy as Alex is, he’s still uncertain. We will still have to fight for full equality because DOMA prevents me from petitioning for his green card. But the constant fear of exile or separation is over, and for that we’re very grateful. “
On July 13th 2011, Venezuelan native Alex Benshimol and U.S. citizen Doug Gentry stood hand-in-hand outside the federal building on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. The couple was surrounded by friends, family, advocates and supporters who came together in protest against a DOMA deportation that would destroy their marriage. Journalists and press took videos and pictures documenting the dedication of the chanting crowd, the face of 17,000 petition signers who urged the administration to take immediate action to ensure that married binational same-sex couples enjoy full equality and access to all the rights and priveleges afforded to opposite-sex binational couples under our immigration laws. The rally and petition in support of Doug & Alex was organized through the combined efforts of Stop the Deportations and Out4Immigation, GetEqual, Marriage Equality USA and many other organizations (see complete list at the bottom of this post).
Appearing before Immigration Marilyn Teeter, Soloway requested that the government exercise “prosecutorial discretion” to drop its case again Alex Benshimol. Specifically, Soloway asked that the government agree to “administrative closure,” which, if granted, would effectively end the deportation case against Alex. Soloway pointed to the June 17, 2011 memorandum from John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to ICE officers, agents, and attorneys, which specifies the guidelines for exercising prosecutorial discretion in cases that are not enforcement priorities. Soloway asked the Judge not to proceed with the deportation case until the government responded to the request.
Soloway argued that multiple guidelines in the memo applied in Alex’s case (original memo text italicized):
● Particular attention should be paid to plaintiffs in non-frivolous lawsuits involving civil rights.
Soloway argued that Alex and Doug were part of an advocacy campaign, namely, Stop the Deportations, that had filed I-130 marriage-based “green card” petitions in order to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act in pursuit of (equal) civil rights.
● Whether the person has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, child, or parent.
Soloway argued that Alex has a U.S. citizen spouse, Doug, who lawfully married Alex in Connecticut in 2010. They have been together ever since. Alex is also the stepfather to Doug’s two children who are both U.S. citizens.
● The person's ties and contributions to the community, including family relationships.
Soloway argued that Alex has strong community ties: he has a successful dog grooming business, is a well-respected member of his community, and many organizations have publicly supported his pursuit to stay in the country with his husband, Doug.
● The person's criminal history, including arrests, prior convictions, or outstanding arrest
Soloway noted that Alex has no criminal history, no arrests, convictions, outstanding arrests or charges.
● The person's ties to the home country and conditions in the country.
Soloway argued that Alex has no ties to his home country of Venezuela and has not lived there for 12 years. Venezuelan law makes not provision for the immigration of a same-sex spouse of a Venezuelan citizen, so if Alex were deported Doug would have no way of living in Venezuela with him. Furthermore, Soloway noted, Venezuela is not safe for LGBT people or Americans.
In response to Soloway’s request to administratively close the case, Judge Teeter laid out two options. Either the government could move to close the case within 60 days, or, Judge Teeter would revisit the case again in 27 months to settle the matter until the political landscape surrounding the Defense of Marriage Act had settled. On July 13 Doug and Alex left the courtroom relieved that the judge had given them a 26 month reprieve and optimistic that the government would drop the case altogether before September 12.
Only 16 days later, ICE notified the Immigration Judge that they would agree to close the case. The Judge received the goverment’s motion on August 11 and ruled on the Motion immediately ordering the proceedings administratively closed. Soloway received notice of the decision today.
For Doug and Alex this long ordeal is over. While they still fight for full equality, and a green card for Alex, they are safe in the knowledge that the government will not longer seek to deport Alex and destroy their marriage and the life they have built together for past six years.
Just two days ago, Janet Napolitano released a letter to Senator Harry Reid (NV-D), explaining that “the June 17th, 2011 prosecutorial discretion memorandum is being implemented to ensure that resources are uniformly focused on our highest priorities.” Secretary Napolitano specified by noting that these high priority cases are “those involving convicted felons.”
Secretary Napolitano’s letter explained that an inter-agency group had been established between the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security in order to do a case-by-case review of “all individuals currently in removal proceedings, to ensure that they constitute our highest priorities.” She notes that all future cases will be viewed in the same fashion, in order to be consistent with the priorities of the two departments. Perhaps most importantly, DHS clarified that the family unification considerations outlined in the June 17 memo did include LGBT families.
What does this mean?
Secretary Napolitano's historic announcement takes us one step closer to a uniform policy that will end deportations of all spouses of lesbian and gay Americans. It puts the full power of the administration behind the enforcement of prosecutorial discretion rather than simply allowing each ICE attorney or deportation officer to decide whether and how that discretion should be exercised. By undertaking a review of all pending deportation cases at the highest level and clarifying that existing prosecutorial discretion guidelines include LGBT families, Secretary Napolitano will now have the opportunity to stop every deportation involving a lesbian or gay binational couple.
There is no question that DOMA is the sole obstacle to a green card for Alex and Doug. Alex came into the U.S. 12 years ago from Venezuela and overstayed a tourist visa, an immigration violation that straight binational couples can remedy once married. As a same-sex married couple, Doug and Alex do not have that option. Thousands of married binational couples, like Doug and Alex, are treated as legal strangers in the eyes of the federal government. Doug and Alex faced deportation proceedings for one reason only: the Defense of Marriage Act, a law President Obama has determined to be indefensible and unconstitutional and has called on the public to help repeal.
Tens of thousands of binational same-sex couples will celebrate this historic second victory following on that of Josh Vandiver & Henry Velandia in June. Again the administration has demonstrated it can prevent a married same-sex couple from being torn apart by a “DOMA deportation.” Secretary Napolitano’s announcement opens the path to further exercise of prosecutorial discretion in deportation cases, enabling same-sex married couples to stay together. However, we must continue to fight for each and every couple to ensure that no couple is separated by DOMA.
STOP THE DEPORTATIONS – THE DOMA PROJECT, a campaign co-founded by attorney, Lavi Soloway in July 2010 along with his law partner, Noemi Masliah, has contributed to the trend of recent victories. For nearly two decades, Soloway has been the most prominent attorney and advocate on LGBT immigration law and policy in the United States. He has worked exclusively in this field since co-founding the non-profit organization, Immigration Equality, in 1993.
Our July 13, 2010 rally to stop the deportation of Alex Benshimol was also supported by Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), Asian Pacific Islander Equality, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, Asian Law Caucus, Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Chinese for Affirmative Action, Equality California, Immigration Equality, Love Honor Cherish, National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), and San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network (SFILEN).