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Federal authorities drop deportation case against same-sex partner

By Adriana Hauser, CNN
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Deportation of same-sex partner dropped
  • Venezuelan had faced deportation proceedings
  • He is legally married to an American
  • Federal officials have decided not to pursue case
  • Immigration employees get discretion on specific cases

(CNN) -- Federal authorities have stopped the deportation of a gay immigrant legally married to a United States citizen.

Venezuelan Henry Velandia came to the United States almost a decade ago to dance. The 27-year-old salsa dancer met American Josh Vandiver five years ago. The New Jersey couple legally married in Connecticut less than a year ago.

In 2009, with the support of a sponsor and before his marriage, Velandia applied for a green card. But instead of obtaining legal residency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) started a deportation process.

"I thought my world was crumbling," said Velandia. His spouse, Vandiver, said "the only reason the federal government was not recognizing the marriage was the Defense of the Marriage Act."

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law in 1996. It protects the legal parameters surrounding the definition of marriage at the federal level, which recognizes the union as a man and a woman.

While President Barack Obama has repeatedly said the executive branch does not support DOMA, federal agencies continue to enforce it.

"Pursuant to the Attorney General's guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the Executive Branch, including DHS, will continue to enforce it unless and until Congress repeals it or there a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional," ICE said in a statement this week.

With the help of immigration lawyers Lavi Soloway and Noemi Masliah, the couple began an effort to halt the deportation. Soloway has said the federal agency should focus on deporting dangerous criminals instead of separating families. He asked for prosecutorial discretion.

Velandia has since appeared in several immigration hearings and, on May 6, was granted a temporary 7-month reprieve from deportation.

Soloway indicated that on June 9, Newark, New Jersey, chief counsel Jane Minichiello said ICE had "reconsidered the request and decided to move for Administrative Closure because this case was not an enforcement priority at this time."

It was not until June 29 that attorneys Soloway and Masliah actually received the judge's order terminating Velandia's removal proceedings.

"We are celebrating the future we just got now that my deportation was stopped," said Velandia. "We had this enormous burden over us that my husband of less than a year would be taken away from me and we'd be torn apart. Now we are celebrating that we get to be together indefinitely in this country," added Vandiver.

John Morton, director of ICE, recently reminded in a memo that officials use "prosecutorial discretion" in specific cases. ICE emphasizes that its priority is to focus on dangerous criminals.

This decision could set a precedent for thousands of gay couples.

A study from UCLA estimates that about 36,000 gay couples are made up of a U.S. citizen and a non-citizen. Some activist groups in favor of same sex marriage believe the number could be higher.

The decision does not grant Velandia legal permanent residence, but the couple says it buys them time to keep fighting for their cause and other same-sex couples.

"Couples who love each other should stay together," said Velandia.