September 19, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
Collins becomes first GOP co-sponsor of UAFA
Susan Collins, Senate, Victory Fund, Republican

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Republican senator from Maine credited with being a leader in the legislative effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has signed on to legislation that would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign same-sex partners for residency in the United States.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Wednesday became the 27th co-sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, saying in a statement the legislation would modify the immigration code to treat bi-national couples the same whether they’re gay or straight. The Human Rights Campaign announced the news in a blog post this morning.

“This legislation would simply update our nation’s immigration laws to treat bi-national couples equally,” Collins said. “More than two dozen countries recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes. This important civil rights legislation would help prevent committed, loving families from being forced to choose between leaving their family or leaving their country.”

Under current immigration code, straight Americans can sponsor their spouses for residency in the United States through the green card application process if their spouses are foreign nationals. The same rights aren’t available to gay Americans. Consequently, foreign nationals who are in committed relationships with gay Americans may have to leave the country upon expiration of their temporary visas or face deportation.

Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, told the Washington Blade that Collins’ decision to co-sponsor the legislation demonstrates the problem facing same-sex bi-national couples is something both Democrats and Republicans can work to resolve.

“This is a bipartisan issue, as we’ve seen in the tremendous energy and support around our business coalition, which has more than 25 Fortune 500 companies really talking to Republican offices all the time about why this a business issue for them,” Tiven said. “It really crosses all boundaries because if talented people have to leave the country because of immigration discrimination against LGBT families, that’s a loss for everybody.”

Collins’ newly announced support for UAFA makes her the only Republican in either chamber of Congress to back the legislation. In the House, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who’s considered the most pro-LGBT Republican lawmaker in that chamber, doesn’t co-sponsor UAFA, even though she’s a co-sposnor of DOMA repeal legislation. Conversely, Collins hasn’t signed on as a co-sponsor to the DOMA repeal bill, which is known as the Respect for Marriage Act.

Her co-sponsorship of UAFA is also noteworthy because in 2010 she was among the “no” votes on another immigration-related bill called the DREAM Act, which would have offered young, undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they pursue a college education or military service.

Advocates have sought to include UAFA as part of larger immigration reform legislation that was under discussion during the 111th Congress when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. But that larger bill never advanced beyond the introduction of LGBT-inclusive legislation that was co-sponsored only by Democrats.

Asked whether Collins’ support would improve the chances of LGBT-inclusive immigration reform at a later time, Tiven said, “I think it really demonstrates that LGBT activists and LGBT immigrant families can derive new support for comprehensive immigration reform. She’s somebody who has not been a supporter; she did not vote for the DREAM Act, where she was a big booster for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ [repeal]. So we’re really delighted that she’s so visibly in support of an immigration bill like the Uniting American Families Act.”

Passage of UAFA remains unlikely given the current makeup of Congress. Immigration Equality has been asking the Obama administration to hold he marriage-based green cards for bi-national same-sex couples in abeyance until litigation regarding the Defense of Marriage Act has been resolved. The White House has said it won’t take this course of action, but advocacy groups and U.S. senators have asked the administration to reconsider the decision.

Tiven declined to comment immediately on whether Immigration Equality has asked Collins to call on the Obama administration to put the marriage-based green cards for same-sex couples on hold.

Other LGBT advocates praised Collins for her decision to co-sponsor UAFA.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said Collins continues “to be the tip of the spear” for Republicans working to protect LGBT families.

“The Uniting American Families Act is a vital piece of legislation for many in our community who for too long have been forced to choose between their love of country, and the loves of their lives,” Cooper said. “With no ability to sponsor their partners, Americans are being forced abroad, taking their tax base, their talent, and enterprise to the more than 25 countries that offer residency for lesbian and gay partners. The Uniting American Families Act would allow Americans to sponsor their permanent partners for residency, benefiting both these American citizens and the companies which employ them.”

Other pro-LGBT bills that Collins co-sponsors are the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act and the Tax Parity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the sponsor of UAFA in the Senate, also commended Collins for her decision to co-sponsor the legislation.

“With this decision, Sen. Collins has demonstrated that she stands on the side of fairness in our immigration laws for all Americans and their loved ones,” Leahy said. “I hope that her support represents a turning point in the effort of so many of us to make our laws apply equally to all and to end the official discrimination that harms too many Americans.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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