President Obama’s speech on Tuesday calling for a bipartisan approach to immigration reform lacked explicit mention of the plight of bi-national gay couples, but LGBT rights supporters are hoping his inclusion of family unification was a hint of his support.
In his address at the Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas, Obama emphasized passage of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress would have benefits for both the economic prosperity and border security of the country while making no explicit mention of the plight that many gay families face under current immigration laws.
On the fiscal benefits of immigration reform, Obama said enacting new legislation would enable immigrants who come to the United States to attend college to stay in the country to use their education to advance the economy.
“But our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or power a new industry right here in the United States,” Obama said. “So instead of training entrepreneurs to create jobs in America, we train them to create jobs for our competition. That makes no sense. In a global marketplace, we need all the talent we can get — not just to benefit those individuals, but because their contributions will benefit all Americans.”
Obama also said enacting comprehensive immigration reform would contribute to border security by allowing U.S. immigration officials to focus on immigrants who come to the United States for unscrupulous purposes.
“The most significant step we can take now to secure the borders is to fix the system as a whole — so that fewer people have incentive to enter illegally in search of work in the first place,” Obama said. “This would allow agents to focus on the worst threats on both of our borders — from drug traffickers to those who would come here to commit acts of violence or terror.”
But never during the speech did Obama directly address how under current immigration law gay Americans are unable to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States. Foreign nationals in same-sex relationships with Americans could be subject to deportation and separation from their loved ones upon expiration of their temporary visas that allow them to remain in the country.
Even U.S. citizens in legally recognized same-sex marriages with foreign nationals cannot obtain marriage-based I-130 green cards for their spouses because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of the unions.
At one point in his address, Obama said immigration law should “respect families following the rules — reuniting them more quickly instead of splitting them apart.” The remark seemed directed toward immigrants who are permanent residents in the United States seeking to have their loved ones join them, and not aimed at problems faced by gay Americans and their foreign partners.
“While applicants wait for approval, for example, they’re often forbidden from visiting the United States,” Obama said. “Even husbands and wives may have to spend years apart. Parents can’t see their children. I don’t believe the United States of America should be in the business of separating families. That’s not right. That’s not who we are.”
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said the president’s speech was intended to emphasize the importance of immigration reform on his agenda and the lack of explicit mention of gay families shouldn’t be seen as an indication of the president’s position on the issue.
“The president delivered this speech because he wants a constructive and civil debate on the need to fix the broken immigration system so that it meets America’s economic and security needs for the 21st century,” Inouye said. “It is fundamental for America to win the future. His remarks are not meant to be a laundry list of all the issues that immigration reform should address.”
LGBT rights supporters working on immigration issues expressed gratitude to the president for giving the speech despite his lack of explicit mention of gay couples during the address.
Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said his organization wholeheartedly supports the notion expressed by Obama that immigration system should keep families together in the United States.
“We couldn’t agree more, and while the president didn’t use the ‘LGBT’ qualifier in his reference to families, we’re going to ensure the White House knows — clearly and unambiguously — that any immigration reform effort must be inclusive,” Ralls said.
Ralls added that his organization is pleased that Obama is stepping up efforts to reform the immigration system and is glad to hear him talk about an end to family separation.
“Now, we look forward to working with him, and other leaders, on a concrete plan that includes our families, too,” Ralls said. “It’s time for everyone to get into the business of reforming our laws in a way that unites, rather than separates, loved ones. That’s the right thing to do, and the goal we remain committed to.”
Lavi Soloway, co-founder of Stop the Deportations, also said he applauds the commitment to reform that President Obama expressed during his speech and for emphasizing that family unification is the bedrock of immigration law.
However, Soloway said Obama needs to take administrative action by exercising his prosecutorial authority to ensure that foreign nationals in legally recognized same-sex marriages with U.S. citizens can stay in the country without fear of deportation.
“To keep our country safe, we must focus our law enforcement resources on deporting those who have committed crimes and endanger our security,” Soloway said. “At the same time this administration must take great care that, in the zeal to achieve that goal, innocent families are not torn apart. The administration has not yet delivered fully on its goal to protect all families from deportation, where possible, by application of existing prosecutorial discretion guidelines.”
Soloway, who handles immigration cases as an attorney with Masliah & Soloway PC in New York, maintained that Obama can issue such a change because he has already determined that DOMA is unconstitutional because of the impact the anti-gay law has LGBT families, including same-sex bi-national couples.
“This administration can act now to ensure that no LGBT families are torn apart by instituting a moratorium on deportations of all spouses of lesbian and gay Americans until all married couples are treated equally under our immigration laws,” Soloway said.