Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform legislation are planning to rally this weekend in support of the bill — and drum up support for a proposed component that would help same-sex couples.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators — perhaps even up to 100,000 — are expected to gather Sunday at 2 p.m. on the National Mall to call for passing immigration reform this year. Reform Immigration for America, a coalition of immigration reform organizations, is staging the event.
Within this larger protest, a contingent of about 200 protesters is set to advocate for LGBT inclusion in immigration reform, and in particular, a provision to help same-sex bi-national couples.
Because same-sex couples don’t have federal marriage rights that are available to straight couples, LGBT people in same-sex relationships with a foreign national cannot marry their partner to allow them to stay in the U.S.
Under current immigration law, an estimated 36,000 same-sex bi-national couples are kept apart or are in danger of separation. Standalone legislation in Congress known as the Uniting American Families Act would allow LGBT people to sponsor their partners for permanent residency.
Advocates of UAFA are trying to include the legislation as a provision in comprehensive reform — and are taking part in the rally to ensure their presence is visible within the larger immigration movement.
Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, a group advocating for UAFA, said the rally will be “a visible reminder” to Congress and the Obama administration on keeping their pledge to tackle immigration reform in 2010.
“In fact, I would say that it has already been effective,” Ralls said. “The president last week called key senators to the White House and began holding meetings about how to address this issue, and I have no doubt that the march on the Mall helped to spur those meetings along.”
Among those participating in the rally is Laurie Larson, a 56-year-old Arlington, Va., resident, who’s marching on behalf of two friends who were torn apart.
Joe and Steve, former D.C. residents, lived in the District for 10 years together until Joe was laid off from his position as a structural engineer in 2009. Joe and Steve asked to be identified only by their first names. Because of the nature of his visa, Joe was able to stay in the United States for only six months after he lost his job. The couple is now separated, but planning a move to Canada so they can stay together.
Larson, who’s straight, said she’s taking part in the rally — after having participated in a LGBT rally for immigration reform in October — because she thinks the situation is “totally ludicrous.”
“It’s incumbent upon us to keep the issue in front of people,” she said. “We’ll continue to keep the issue in front of Congress and our representatives and the public at large. To me, it’s really one of the last civil rights issues of the 21st century.”
Also participating in the rally is Emmanuel Garcia, the Chicago-based host of “Homofrecuencia,” the only Spanish language LGBT radio show in the United States. He’s bringing about 100 LGBT people on a bus to participate in the D.C. protest.
For Garcia, who’s gay, participating in the march is not just about drawing attention to UAFA, but showing that LGBT immigrants are among those who are part of the immigration movement.
“We’re focused on a more complex conversation on immigration reform,” he said. “We also understand that there are a lot of LGBTs who would benefit from immigration reform under this bill without the Uniting American Families Act included.”
Garcia said passage of immigration reform would allow LGBT immigrants — even without the passage of UAFA — to remain in the U.S. if they don’t have a partner to sponsor them for residency.
“We have people who have come out as gay, lesbian and bisexual who are also coming out as undocumented,” he said. “Some of those stories relate to both experiences — what it’s like to come out as LGBT, what it’s like to come out in a society that doesn’t accept that doesn’t want to give a certain group rights because they don’t feel they deserve them.”
As advocates come to rally on the National Mall, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are developing comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the U.S. Senate. Earlier this month, both senators met with Obama at the White House to discuss moving forward with the legislation.
But whether these senators will include UAFA in their legislation is unknown. Neither Schumer nor Graham’s office responded to DC Agenda’s requests to comment on the inclusion of UAFA in their bill.
Still, Ralls said he’s “optimistic” that the comprehensive legislation will include a provision for bi-national same-sex couples.
Ralls said Schumer noted during congressional testimony last year that he thought it was appropriate for immigration reform to include a UAFA-like provision. Ralls also noted that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the sponsor for the standalone version of UAFA in the Senate.
“Our hope and expectation is that with two champions as strong and influential as that, that we have a very good shot of being included,” Ralls said.
It’s also unclear when Schumer and Graham will make their bill public — and when they do, if enough time remains in the legislative calendar to pass immigration reform this year. With limited time remaining before lawmakers break to campaign for mid-term elections, other major issues such as financial reform and climate change legislation could take precedence over immigration.
Ralls said he hopes the senators will introduce their legislation sometime this spring and noted that Schumer has “remained steadfast in his desire to introduce the legislation just as soon as we can.”
Asked whether enough time remains this year for Congress to take on immigration reform, Ralls replied, “The short answer is I hope so.”
“I know that Sen. Schumer is working very hard to build the coalitions in the Senate and to bring people together to make that happen,” he said.
Despite advocates’ push for including a provision for UAFA as part of comprehensive immigration reform, a number of uncertainties and obstacles are in the way. One issue is whether Graham, who has a conservative voting record, would be open to including UAFA. The Human Rights Campaign gave him a score of 0 out of 100 on its most recent congressional scorecard.
But Ralls said he hopes Republicans such as Graham would allow for the inclusion of UAFA in the comprehensive reform because such a provision would strengthen families in the U.S.
“Republican lawmakers are going to take a strong stand in favor of family unification as a priority in the comprehensive bill,” Ralls said. “Lesbian and gay families are a natural fit for family unification issues.”
Ralls added that if Schumer and Graham can work together to create a bill that boasts bipartisan support for other issues — such as creating a path to citizenship for immigrants — UAFA “will not be a make-or-break situation.”
Another uncertainly is the degree to which the White House would support passing UAFA as part of comprehensive reform, particularly if administration officials believe including the provision would complicate passage of the larger bill.
The White House has expressed support for both UAFA and comprehensive immigration reform as individual items, but hasn’t endorsed passing them together as one larger package.
In response to a query on whether Obama would support passing UAFA this year as part of immigration reform, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in a statement the president’s “commitment to fixing our broken immigration system remains unwavering, and he continues to hope for bipartisan leadership on legislation.”
“He has told members of both parties that if they can fashion a plan, he is eager to work with them to get it done and he has assigned Secretary [of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano to work with stakeholders on that effort,” Inouye said.
Ralls said he thinks it would be “logical” for the White House to endorse UAFA as part of comprehensive reform if the administration favors passage of both legislative items.
“My belief is that they would like to see UAFA passed and that they are committed to comprehensive reform — and it just seems logical to me that the two go well together,” Ralls said. “If we’re going to have a comprehensive bill, it should be truly comprehensive and include lesbian and gay immigrants, too.”
But opposition from the Catholic Church — a strong voice for the Hispanic community seeking immigration reform — could be an obstacle. Last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops came out against UAFA and said they couldn’t support immigration reform if a provision for LGBT couples were included in the larger legislation.
Ralls said the Conference of Catholic Bishops is “a sole minority voice,” though, among religious groups that have stated positions on the legislation. He said Methodists, Episcopalians, Unitarians and Jewish groups are among the religious organizations supporting UAFA.
“The list of faith groups who are committed to immigration reform that includes lesbian and gay families is very long and diverse,” Ralls said. “At the end of the day, people of faith should support keeping children with parents and families together and, in my view, it is the Christian thing to do.”
Also lacking among the advocacy groups is unanimity in favor of including UAFA as part of the larger bill.
Reform Immigration for America, an umbrella group for organizations calling for comprehensive reform, hasn’t stated a position on including UAFA in a larger bill. The organization didn’t respond to DC Agenda’s request to comment on its position.
Still, other groups supporting immigration reform have come out in favor of including UAFA in comprehensive reform. The Fair Immigration Movement, a project with the Center for Community Change, endorsed inclusion of UAFA earlier this month.
Marissa Graciosa, director of FIRM, said in a statement that her project supports the inclusion of UAFA to keep couples together.
“There is power in our diversity, but we must honor that diversity,” she said. “And it starts with keeping all families from all backgrounds together. This is why we support the Uniting American Families Act.”
Ralls said Immigration Equality is an active member for Reform Immigration for America and is working to bring organizations within that umbrella group in favor of UAFA inclusion.
In addition to FIRM, Ralls said the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund has noted the importance of including same-sex couples in immigration reform.
“So there are organizations within the immigration movement — both faith groups and immigrant groups that have been very vocal in their support of our inclusion,” he said.