February 15, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Obama strikes cautious tone on immigration reform
President Obama speaks at Google "Fireside Hangout" (Blade screenshot by Chris Johnson)

President Obama speaks at Google “Fireside Hangout” (Blade screenshot by Chris Johnson)

President Obama said during a Google “Fireside Hangout” on Thursday that he doesn’t want to be too “heavy-handed” in pushing Congress over immigration reform as lawmakers draft legislation. His remarks came in response to a question about gay inclusion in the legislation.

Responding to a question from Jacky Guerrero, founder of the online magazine “xQsí,” on whether he’d compromise by leaving gay couples out of reform, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to LGBT issues and noted some related accomplishments, then said he’s leaving certain aspects of the legislation to Congress as opposed to taking an active role.

“What I’m trying to do right now is to give Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and in the House, the opportunity to work through some of these issues to see where their compromises are, and not be too heavy-handed in a way that might end up breaking up these discussions because I think it’s very important for us to get immigration reform done,” Obama said.

In the same response, Obama reaffirmed that he believes LGBT people ”should not be treated differently when it comes to any aspect of American life, and that includes our immigration laws” and said his position on the issue has “been very clear.”

Obama’s response is the first time he’s publicly addressed the issue of including same-sex couples in immigration reform; it didn’t come up in his speech unveiling the plan.

The plan for immigration reform that Obama made public last month includes a provision for bi-national same-sex couples. Also, in her 12-page written testimony before the Senate, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano reaffirmed that Obama administration is seeking language that would enable gay Americans to sponsor their same-sex foreign partners for residency in the United States.

But Obama’s response is in line with what Vice President Joseph Biden said about such language when asked about it on Capitol Hill by Bloomberg News. In response, Biden said the administration would “wait and see” on the Senate plan before insisting that gay couples be included.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said he appreciates Obama’s remarks that immigration law should treat everyone equally, but said Obama’s support is necessary to ensure an LGBT-inclusive plan is passed into law.

“President Obama has been uncompromising in his belief that LGBT families should be treated equally,” Ralls said. “We are counting on the administration’s help in making sure that’s true when it comes to our immigration laws as well.”

In response to an earlier question from Guerrero, Obama indicated that he wants Congress to act expeditiously on comprehensive immigration reform and expects lawmakers to produce legislation in the “next four or five months.”

On the same day that Obama delivered his remarks in the Google Hangout, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) reintroduced legislation in the U.S. House aimed at addressing family reunification in the U.S. code known as the Reuniting Families Act.

The bill aims to help ensure that visas are allocated efficiently and alleviate lengthy wait times that are keeping legal immigrants and their loved ones overseas separated — sometimes for years. The legislation also enables gay Americans to sponsor a same-sex foreign partner for residency in the United States.

“Our family-based immigration system has not been updated in 20 years, separating spouses, children and their parents, who have played by the rules for years,” Honda said in a statement. “My proposed legislation is in line with American family values and with our need to grow our economy and save taxpayer money. American workers with families by their side are happier, healthier and more able to succeed than those distanced from loved ones for years on end.”

The transcript of the exchange between Guerrero and Obama follows:

Jacky Guerrero: Your support for gay rights has continued to grow over the last year, and I’d like to know if you’re committed to supporting bi-national same-sex couples in the immigration reform bill that you’re hoping to pass.

Recently, Marco Rubio did an interview with Buzzfeed where he was asked this question. He said that if this became a central issue, that it would it much harder to get done. So, I’d like to know from you if this something you’re willing to stand behind to ensure that same-sex bi-national couples are included in the immigration bill, or if this is something that you’re willing to compromise on?

President Obama: First of all, I think it’s important, Jacky, to say that my support on LGBT issues didn’t start last year, right? It started when I came into office, making sure that we had hospital visitations, making sure that federal workers and partners were able to receive benefits, on through us ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and most recently, making sure that same-sex partners were able to get benefits when they’re serving in the military. So, this is something I care deeply about.

And I have said very clearly that I think that people should be treated the same. They should not be treated differently when it comes to any aspect of American life, and that includes our immigration laws.

So, what I’m trying to do right now is to give Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and in the House, the opportunity to work through some of these issues to see where their compromises are, and not be too heavy-handed in a way that might end up breaking up these discussions because I think it’s very important for us to get immigration reform done. But we’ve been very clear that we think that it makes sense for same-sex couples to be treated the same when it comes to immigration laws and every other law.

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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