The Department of Homeland Security today announced a change to immigration rules, saying that they would consider same-sex couples as “family relationships” for the purposes of immigration policy. Specifically, the written guidance reads, “In an effort to make clear the definition of the phrase ‘family relationships,’ I have directed ICE to disseminate written guidance to the field that the interpretation of the phrase ‘family relationships’ includes long-term, same-sex partners.” This means that same-sex couples in binational relationships would have their coupling considered as part of any immigration proceedings. There are roughly 36,000 such couples today.

This doesn’t go all the way of the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow US citizens to bring in their partners, same-sex or opposite-sex, as permanent lawful residents. But short of legislation, this is what DHS can do to err on the side of keeping American families intact and not subjecting loving relationships to a painful separation through deportation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has taken an interest in this issue, writing a letter to DHS with 84 House Democrats calling for this change to immigration policy. They considered it part of a continuum of prosecutorial discretion, focusing deportation efforts on criminal violators rather than loving couples. In August 2011, ICE Director John Morton hinted that immigrants in same-sex relationships would be considered in “family relationships,” with all the tendencies against deportation that implied. Pelosi and the other Democrats wanted that in writing, and now they have it. Here’s her statement:

The directive by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for DHS to issue written guidance to clarify that ‘family relationships’ includes LBGT couples is welcome and will provide a measure of clarity and confidence to families dealing with separation in immigration cases.  Our nation is served when loving families are kept together.

We have more to do: we need to pass the Uniting American Families Act and the Reuniting Families Act, to relegate DOMA to the dustbin of history, and to fight discrimination in all of its forms.

In the past, these immigration policy changes have been announced without corresponding real change on the ground. Even since August 2011, after the oral guidance, same-sex binational couples have been caught up in the deportation web. So it remains to be seen whether this will lead to a real difference in how these couples are treated. For now, however, DHS has released written guidance, and that at least gives couples fighting deportation a chance.