|Henry Velandia & Josh Vandiver in Princeton, NJ, were married in CT.|
An announcement by immigration officials in Washington on Monday that they were delaying decisions on some immigration cases involving gay couples led to a surge of expectations among gay advocates that the Obama administration had taken a small but significant step toward recognizing same-sex marriage.
But on Tuesday, immigration officials moved swiftly to clarify their position and dampen those hopes, saying they have not made any policy changes that would provide an opening to gay couples. The episode added to the legal confusion that has followed the administration’s determination last month that the law that bars the federal government from recognizing gay marriages, the Defense of Marriage Act, is unconstitutional.
In this case, the misunderstandings and soaring hopes arose from an effort in recent days by officials at Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that awards immigration status, to clarify their policy on granting permanent residency green cards to immigrants legally married to American citizens who are gay. While it is routine for American citizens in heterosexual couples to obtain green cards for their foreign spouses, the Defense of Marriage Act has barred such status for immigrants in same-sex marriages.
That situation has long been a focus of criticism by gay rights groups, who argue that the law is particularly discriminatory against immigrants. “If you are in a bi-national couple that is heterosexual, you get to stay here and work here,” said Richard Socarides, a lawyer who is president of Equality Matters, a gay rights advocacy group. “If you are gay, you get deported.”
In February, President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that the administration would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, although it would continue to enforce the law, which was adopted in 1996, until it is changed by the courts or by Congress.
The position has led to a host of dilemmas for federal agencies that continue to enforce the law. This month, Immigration Equality, a group that advocates for immigrants in gay couples, wrote to immigration officials urging them to suspend deportations of immigrants in same-sex marriages and suspend other cases involving gay couples until the courts render a final decision on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The most recent crossed signals started at meetings last week between immigration lawyers and officials from Citizenship and Immigration Services. The officials said that some cases involving gay married couples had been suspended while the agency sought guidance from its lawyers about issues related to the marriage act.
On Monday, Christopher S. Bentley, the chief spokesman for the immigration agency, confirmed in a statement that cases nationwide involving married gay couples had been suspended. What Mr. Bentley did not say was how long that hold might last and what issues the agency was seeking to clarify.
But the elated reaction among gay advocates and couples was immediate. Describing Mr. Bentley’s statement as “a darn big deal,” Rachel B. Tiven, the executive director of Immigration Equality, called it “the first domino to fall” for gay American citizens with foreign spouses.
Ms. Tiven said she understood that immigrants in married gay couples could now apply for green cards and instead of being automatically denied, their cases would be suspended until the courts decided the validity of the marriage act.
Word also went out across the country. In Princeton, N.J., Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia, in the middle of a public forum on immigration issues, embraced and cheered. They said they had heard from their immigration lawyer that the agency’s announcement might mean at least a temporary reprieve from deportation for Mr. Velandia.
Mr. Vandiver, 29, is an American citizen and a political science graduate student at Princeton. He and Mr. Velandia, 27, who is from Venezuela, were married last August in Connecticut, one of the states that recognize same-sex marriages. Their application for a green card for Mr. Velandia was recently denied, and he is facing deportation as early as May.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Bentley issued a new statement, saying that Citizenship and Immigration Services “has not implemented any change in policy and intends to follow the president’s directive to continue enforcing the law.”
Mr. Bentley said the agency’s field offices had suspended cases for a short period, perhaps a week or two, while lawyers clarified a “narrow legal issue” concerning the marriage act. He said the agency would probably resume action on same-sex marriage cases in coming days and would continue to deny immigration status to foreigners based on those marriages.
Immigration lawyers tried on Tuesday to sort out the meaning of the events.
“We have to be very cautious,” said Lavi S. Soloway, a lawyer who represents Mr. Velandia and Mr. Vandiver. He said gay couples should continue to understand that “if they file for immigration status, they may be putting themselves at considerable risk of deportation.”
Mr. Velandia, a dancer, formed a dance company in Princeton, HotSalsaHot, and teaches salsa classes there.
Mr. Vandiver said he and Mr. Velandia do not see an alternative to living in the United States.
“The prospect of Henry’s deportation is extremely frightening,” he said. “We are committed to staying together, but the world is really closed to us. We both think it’s dangerous to return to Venezuela as a same-sex married couple.”