New Customs Rule Would Treat Same-Sex Couples As Families

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration proposed on Tuesday to recognize same-sex couples as families on customs forms, a small but significant step, supporters said, toward equal recognition by the federal government.

"It's very insulting to come to the United States as an American citizen with your partner or your spouse and be told you cannot be treated as a family," Steve Ralls, a spokesman for Immigration Equality, said of the rule. "It is a symbolic step forward toward making sure that gay and lesbian couples will no longer be subjected to a different standard and they're no longer invisible in the process."

The proposed rule change, which was posted to the Federal Register website on Tuesday, would expand the definition of a family for the purpose of customs forms for entering the United States. Under the current rule, same-sex partners must file separate forms rather than entering as a family, even if they are legally married. Heterosexual couples are only required to fill out one form.

It would be among the first wave of changes by the administration to recognize same-sex families as part of an initiative of President Barack Obama to allow for equal treatment to gays and lesbians by federal agencies.

The Defense of Marriage Act prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages authorized by individual states. But the proposed rule change does not address same-sex marriage specifically but rather broadens the definition of families generally. The definition would also be expanded to cover foster children, stepchildren, half-siblings and guardian situations.

"[U.S. Customs and Border Protection] believes that this proposed change would more accurately reflect relationships between members of the public who are traveling together as a family," according to the rule proposed by the Treasury Department.

The rule is also meant to cut down on paperwork during the inspection process as citizens and legal residents enter the country.

Family Equality Council, an advocacy group that worked with Immigration Equality to push for the rule change, is also lobbying for other recognitions of same-sex couples by federal agencies.

"This is just another example of the Obama administration making that step forward," said Emily Hecht McGowan, the group's director of public policy.