Same-Sex Visas and Ways Immigration Policy Can Change Apart From Congress

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A protestor carries an American flag as he marches down Market Street during an immigration reform demonstration on April 10, 2013 in San Francisco, California.

The U.S. will begin reviewing visa applications from same-sex couples in the same way it does applications from heterosexual couples, Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday.

Married couples get special consideration in the immigration system, meaning that the U.S. citizen in the relationship can apply for a visa for their spouse. But until now, same-sex partners have been excluded from those benefits.

This is an important policy change for the estimated 28,000 binational same-sex couples in the country, and for future binational gay and lesbian couples.

It's also a sign that there are ways to change immigration policy that don't depend on Congress. That's important, since immigration reform is moving slowly at the moment, and because there's no guarantee that a bill will pass anytime soon.

Here are a few other ways policy can change, without Congress:

1. Courts

LGBT groups have worked for years to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that said same-sex marriage was not valid in the eyes of the federal government.

But the Supreme Court found DOMA unconstitutional last month. That means that same-sex marriages in states where it is legal will now be recognized by the federal government. It also paved the way for the change to the immigration system that Sec. Kerry announced today.

And there are smaller-scale court cases that matter, as well.

For example, a lawsuit filed by federal immigration officers tried to end deportation relief that the Obama administration had granted to undocumented young people. Officers said that the Department of Homeland Security was sidestepping Congress when it created the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

The judge appeared to agree with that argument. He said that the case was "likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Department of Homeland Security has implemented a program contrary to Congressional mandate."

A ruling against the program could have complicated life for the more than 400,000 people who have deportation relief under DACA. But the judged dismissed the case on Wednesday, saying it was out of his jurisdiction.

2. Local Government

As with any issue, the large-scale policy battles in Washington over immigration get a lot more attention than those happening on the local level. But local policy can impact people as well.

Look at Seattle. Mayor Mike McGinn changed city policy last month to allow DREAMers who qualify for deportation relief to add their names to utility bills. It's a small move, but it could help people access local services and have a future proof of identity, which could be used for things like renting an apartment.

Of course, local immigration policy battles cut both ways. A Dallas suburb, for instance, tried to ban undocumented people from renting housing. A court managed to block the ordinance from going into effect, and an appeal last month was also denied.

3. Executive Action

Then there's Obama. Since the president took office, he's used his executive power to prioritize immigration enforcement. His administration now asks federal immigration officers to go after criminal offenders first, something spelled out in a 2011 memo. And just over a year ago, the Department of Homeland Security began the deportation relief program from DREAMers.

The president doesn't need to stop there. If either of these policy shifts are valid, then a broader deportation relief program should be valid, too.

He isn't ready for that degree of policy intervention, though. He says that would be overstepping his power.

"I think it is important to remind everybody that, as I said I think previously, I'm not a king," Obama told Univision's Maria Elena Salinas in January. "I am the head of the executive branch of government. I'm required to follow the law."