A bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled their highly anticipated plan for comprehensive immigration reform on Tuesday, confirming what many LGBT advocates had anticipated: Protections for same-sex couples are not included in the initial bill.
"We are very disappointed it is not yet included at this point," Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said of the lack of provisions for same-sex couples. The failure to include protections for binational same-sex couples in the bill drafted by four Republican and four Democratic senators, known as the "gang of eight," comes after months of lobbying and cautious optimism from advocates.
Indeed, since the White House unveiled in January President Barack Obama's plan for comprehensive immigration reform, which included provisions that treat "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," Republicans have warned the proposal would doom immigration reform.
"Why don't we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the "gang of eight," told reporters in January.
Under the Defense of Marriage Act, immigrants in relationships with Americans of the same-sex are denied various protections, including eligibility for green cards, because the federal government does not recognize such relationships. 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.
"This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me," Obama said in a statement following a briefing on the Senate's plan by two of the bill's authors, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). "But it is largely consistent with the principles that I have repeatedly laid out for comprehensive reform. ... I urge the Senate to quickly move this bill forward and, as I told Senators Schumer and McCain, I stand willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality as soon as possible."
While advocates are applauding aspects of the initial bill, including a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country today, they stress it does not go far enough as long as same-sex couples are excluded.
"The reality is that when the Uniting American Families Act is not in there and there is no way that a family that has been living in exile and wants to come home to the U.S., or a family that is separated and there is no way to be reunited, or a family that has been here and has been moving from one visa to another trying to make sure they stay in status and can stay together and that couple is looking for permanency, there is nothing in here for those families, and that is not comprehensive," Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, told Metro Weekly.
A recent report by the Center for American Progress and the Williams Institute found that of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, at least 267,000 are LGBT adults. With that number of undocumented LGBT immigrants, Carey says a pathway to citizenship is critical. "For them, they're facing a future of fear of both coming out as gay and coming out as undocumented, unless this core issue of path to citizenship is resolved."
Although advocates are expressing disappointment that the initial Senate bill does not include same-sex couples, the sense of optimism that an inclusive bill will end up on the president's desk has not been lost on those involved in lobbying efforts.
"The Senate introduction is one stop," said Carey. "We've got a long way to go."
Multiple sources told Metro Weekly they have received assurances that the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would recognize immigrants in relationships with Americans of the same-sex and grant them various protections, including eligibility for visas, will be tacked onto the immigration bill as an amendment in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, recently reintroduced UAFA in the Senate along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). During a committee hearing in February, Leahy said, "We must also do better by gay and lesbian Americans who face discrimination in our immigration law."
According to Tiven, she has received "very strong assurances" that Leahy will offer the amendment and the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will vote for it. "The LGBT community will be watching very, very closely to see whether our friends stand up for our families," Tiven said. The 844-page "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act" will receive its first committee hearing on Friday.
For the Human Rights Campaign, which announced earlier this month that it would make immigration reform an "organization priority," lobbying efforts have been focused on members of the Judiciary Committee since long before the Senate bill's introduction. According to HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz, the organization will be launching an action alert to supporters later this week asking them to urge members of the Judiciary Committee to vote for the anticipated amendment.
The expected amendment will likely be one aspect of many that will ignite months of fierce debate in the Senate over the fragile compromise reached by the group of eight senators after months of meetings behind closed doors. But even if an inclusive immigration bill successfully passes the Senate, it will face what many anticipate will be an even tougher sell in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
"You have an anti-gay House leadership that has not been warm to our issues generally," said Cole-Schwartz. "In the House, the larger piece of comprehensive immigration reform is going to have a rougher time. We're along in that same boat as the larger issue."
The recent passage of an LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is providing advocates with hope that the House will adopt a strong immigration bill that includes protections for same-sex couples. "That is why we feel so strongly that perfecting the bill in the Judiciary Committee and having the Senate send a really good bill, a really strong bill, over to the House is our best shot at wholly inclusive comprehensive immigration reform," said Tiven. "If the Senate sends them a good bill, the House will adopt a good bill."
[Photos: Sens. Chuck Schumer (top left), Dick Durbin, Robert Menendez, Michael Bennet, John McCain (bottom left), Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio (Courtesy of the U.S. Senate).]
Read the full Senate bill here: