A married lesbian couple living in Vermont who were threatened with being separated by federal immigration authorities have been granted a reprieve.
Japanese immigrant Takako Ueda and her American spouse, Frances Herbert, got word Tuesday that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services decided to defer action on deportation proceedings against Ueda, whose visa had expired.
The decision ended months of uncertainty that was heightened in December when Ueda received a letter ordering her to leave the country by Dec. 31. She did not comply. Herbert said in a phone interview from the couple's home in Dummerston that they had been told Ueda's case would be reviewed in two years.
"Now at least we can exhale," Herbert said.
"Yes, yes, it's a great feeling," Ueda added.
Ueda and Herbert are one of an estimated 36,000 binational, same-sex couples living in the United States, said Steve Ralls, a Washington-based spokesman for Immigration Equality, a group that advocates for such couples. They're also among five couples who sued the federal government in April seeking green cards _ or permanent resident status _ for foreign-born same-sex spouses.
"This does not impact their lawsuit in any way," Ralls said of the decision by USCIS. He said Herbert and Ueda had received "good news for the next two years, but they continue to move forward in their quest to receive a green card for Takako, which is what they deserve."
The binational couple has been together for more than a decade and were legally married in Vermont last year. But because the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage, they didn't have spousal status for immigration purposes.
The letter from USCIS, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, allows Ueda to seek authorization to work and apply for a Vermont driver's license. She and Herbert said Ueda had been able to drive while covered by a now-expired student visa and, given that they live in rural southern Vermont, that privilege had been difficult to live without since the visa expired.
The letter came about two weeks after President Barack Obama stated publicly for the first time that he supports same-sex marriage.
"It can't hurt," Herbert said. "I'm sure having the leader of the country come out and support same-sex marriage gives permission to other groups that maybe have been on the fence to say OK, we can do the same."
A USCIS spokesman, Christopher Bentley, said the agency's position had not changed.
"Pursuant to the Attorney General's guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the Executive Branch, including DHS and USCIS, will continue to enforce it unless and until Congress repeals it or there a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional," he said in an email.
Another USCIS official said, ""Deferred action is granted on a case-by-case basis for humanitarian reasons and is based on evidence provided in each case."
Among the evidence Ueda and Herbert presented were letters of support from Vermont's congressional delegation and Gov. Peter Shumlin, as well as a resolution passed by Dummerston voters on Town Meeting Day in March urging that Ueda be allowed to stay in the country.
The delegation released a joint statement on Tuesday from the two senators, Democrat Patrick Leahy and independent Bernie Sanders, as well as Vermont's lone U.S. House member, Democratic Rep. Peter Welch.
""We welcome this remedy that for now will offer a measure of common sense and compassion for this Vermont couple," the statement said. "All three of our offices have worked hard to support this loving and committed couple who have been unfairly prevented by DOMA from enjoying the rights and benefits that all lawfully married couples deserve."