By Malissa Rogers
The DOMA Project, founded by Lavi Soloway and law partner Noemi Masliah, claimed victory earlier this month when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) formally agreed to recognize same-sex marriages in the consideration of deportation.
It’s a decision that could save the foreign spouse of a gay or lesbian American from being deported.
“We succeeded, but we need to see it trickle down to many officials, prosecutors and judges,” Soloway said. “It’s the first time any agency in the federal government, ever in history, recognized same-sex marriages in any kind of policy.”
The current deportation cases, involving bi-national gay married couples, are a direct result of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) according to Soloway. DOMA guarantees that states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and that the federal government does not have to recognize it either.
Attorneys Soloway and Masliah, who both have worked in immigration law for more than 20 years, launched the DOMA Project in October 2010 after working with multiple bi-national gay married couples who were facing deportation because of DOMA. The campaign’s ultimate goal is to repeal DOMA, but the project focuses on couples who are in the United States on a temporary visa and are running out of time.
DOMA has created a problem for the spouse who holds a green card because the federal government does not recognize gay marriage; therefore the foreign spouse is usually deported.
“Denying it at the federal level is saying ‘Yes, you have a lawful marriage and a legal marriage; however we are still going to impose this discriminatory law on your family, all because we’re not going to recognize your marriage,’” Soloway said.
Earlier this year the Obama administration officially announced their support for repealing DOMA; a success for the DOMA Project and for those who are fighting for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.
“President Obama took a bold step forward for civil rights when he announced that the federal government would no longer argue to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act in court,” Representative Pelosi said in a released statement. “DOMA is discriminatory; it’s unfair and indefensible and it betrays our nation’s long-held – and long-cherished – value of equality for all.”
However, it does not mean that the deportation cases involving foreign citizens married to same-sex Americans will automatically be absolved or that they will process green card applications right away because they are married. What will happen is that the bi-national gay couple’s marriage will be taken into consideration while evaluating the possibility of deportation.
The impact of DOMA isn’t only felt by bi-national couples; it costs married gay and lesbian couples millions of dollars because their spouses are not recognized for tax or healthcare purposes.
Soloway has helped reopen numerous cases and has worked on behalf of married couples who are facing deportation. When the case is reviewed, usually the couple gets a letter stating that their application has been denied. In turn, Soloway has consistently informed Immigration Services that their decision to deport a person based on the DOMA law alone is not a sufficient reason to deny their application.
“These letters are offensive. No one would stand for those letters if they referenced race or religion, so why is it OK to deny them because they’re two men or two women?” Soloway said.
Soloway and Masliah spend their time attending green card interviews, proving the couples have legitimate marriages and asking DHS to put the applications on hold until DOMA is solved or repealed by the federal government.
A new project that Soloway has launched is geared towards educating the public about bi-national gay couples by recording their daily lives. The videos are presented to government officials and the media, with the intent of personalizing the issue by showing the actual people who are directly impacted by DOMA.
“It’s very much a campaign of discussion and involvement. The more gay and lesbian couples talk about their love and commitment, people start to understand the differences in the lives of these couples,” Soloway said.
The most recent story that the DOMA Project is sharing is about a bi-national married lesbian couple: Gemma and Jessica.
Gemma, who is from England and Jessica, a U.S. citizen, were recently impacted by DOMA when Gemma was informed that she could not obtain a tourist visa to live in the U.S. Unfortunately, after they had been married for a year, Jessica was forced to decide between her citizenship and her marriage. Ultimately she joined Gemma in England and was able to bring one of her daughters, Ashleigh, with her.
Soloway believes that we will see more states legalizing same-sex marriage within the next few years and in turn the repeal of DOMA will happen over the next ten years, but not without the consistent support of all generations.
“Winning equality is winning the court of public opinion. Unless we change hearts and minds of people, we haven’t reached all those who we can reach,” Soloway said. “We need to create a receptive audience, so the future kids do not get beaten down or bullied.”
The DOMA project plans to continue working on exiled and separated couples with the intent of reuniting estranged families.
“Just because DOMA is struck down does not mean our fight is over. We are a part of the fabric of the U.S.; where people fight for their rights,” Soloway said. “I would hope that my daughter and her daughter do not have to fight for their civil rights. Hopefully soon we will all live in a universe without DOMA.”