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With immigration reform once again taking center stage on Capitol Hill, advocates are cautiously optimistic that protections for same-sex families articulated by President Barack Obama will be included in comprehensive reform.
In a meeting with progressive leaders at the White House Feb. 5, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to a four-part plan for reform unveiled during a speech in Las Vegas late last month. Those who participated in the meeting described the president as upbeat and confident – and optimistic that this time will be different.
“We talked about the best possible strategy for moving this initiative forward and we’re moving quickly,” Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, told reporters outside the West Wing of the White House. “We feel very strongly that there is a shared sense of urgency to move as quickly as possible and we believe the president has laid out the best possible framework to move forward.”
Previous attempts to reform the country’s immigration system have failed in recent years, with Democrats and Republicans failing to agree on key principles. Some of those differences remain today, but perhaps nowhere more visibly than on a provision supported by Obama that would allow gay Americans to sponsor their permanent partners for legal residency.
Obama’s proposal “treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner,” according to an outline provided by the White House.
Although long sought by LGBT-rights advocates who have derided an immigration system that denies immigrants in relationships with Americans of the same-sex various protections, including eligibility for green cards, because the federal government does not recognize such relationships, the provision has already rankled some Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“Why don’t we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters last week.
According to the Family Equality Council, there are more than 36,000 binational same-sex couples living in the United States today. Nearly half of them are raising children. Without recognition of same-sex relationships in deportation proceedings, many of these families risk being torn apart.
The provision for same-sex families was missing from the outline of a plan unveiled last month by a bipartisan working group of senators on immigration reform, dubbed the “gang of eight.” Republican senators part of that group, including Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who recently described inclusion of such rights as “not of paramount importance” and a “red flag,” have indicated any inclusion of rights for same-sex families threatens to sink the entire initiative.
“I think if that issue becomes the central issue in the debate it’s just going to make it harder to get it done because there’s going to be a lot of strong feelings about it on both sides,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another member of the Senate’s “gang of eight,” during an interview with BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith Feb. 5. “I hope that doesn’t become the central issue of this debate, because the immigration issue has some significant land mines and pitfalls. This is going to be a pretty heavy lift to begin with.”
The White House and advocates, however, are digging in.
“If that is the excuse on which people are going to limit their support for immigration reform, they should be ashamed of themselves,” Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, told Metro Weekly.
Tiven participated in the Feb. 5 meeting with Obama and said the White House is “unequivocally supportive and clearly committed to LGBT inclusion in immigration reform.”
“The president wouldn’t be wasting his time on a package that’s LGBT-inclusive if he didn’t think he could pass it,” Tiven added.
Although Obama has said he will introduce his own legislation if Congress does not act, the White House has not indicated how much he is willing to give on protecting binational same-sex couples.
White House press secretary Jay Carney has declined to say if Obama is willing to compromise on that particular provision of his plan, simply reiterating that Obama has “long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love.”
Speaking to reporters on a conference call Feb. 5, White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz did not say if Obama would introduce his own legislation if rights for same-sex couples are not included in Congress’s plan.
“Those of us who follow these issues, I think, can probably expect there’s going to be a vigorous debate if this legislation gets to the Hill, but the president’s position on this is very clear and is articulated in his principles,” Muñoz said.
While rights for same-sex couples may prove to be one of the most divisive aspects of immigration reform, supporters are keeping all options on the table.
On Feb. 5, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) reintroduced the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) with bipartisan support, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is expected to introduce the same legislation in the Senate. Obama’s plan for immigration reform for same-sex couples mirrors UAFA, which would add the term “permanent partner” to sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act and extend immigration rights currently enjoyed by straight couples.
According to a statement from Nadler, “[A]ny serious legislative proposal for comprehensive immigration reform absolutely must include gay and lesbian couples and their families.”
[Photo: Immigration reform advocates speak to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House after a Feb. 5 meeting with Obama (Credit: Justin Snow/Metro Weekly).]