A gay Republican former U.S. House member testified before the Senate on Monday in favor of including bi-national same-sex couples as part of comprehensive immigration reform — an issue that affects him personally.
Jim Kolbe, who represented Arizona in Congress from 1985 to 2007, spoke during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about LGBT-inclusion in immigration reform both in personal terms and economic benefits for the country.
“While the bill you are considering is an excellent starting point for reform, I submit to you that it is still incomplete,” Kolbe said. “Families like mine are left behind as part of this proposal.”
Language to enable gay Americans to sponsor a same-sex partner for residency in the United States wasn’t included as part of the 844-page base bill for comprehensive immigration reform that was produced by the “Gang of Eight.”
Standalone legislation along these lines is known as the Uniting American Families Act. LGBT advocates say they’ve received assurances such language would be offered as an amendment — possibly by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — when the committee marks up the reform legislation.
Kolbe is in an eight-year relationship with Panama native Hector Alfonso, who came to the United States on Fulbright scholarship to pursue studies in special education and has been a teacher for two decades. The couple had to endure a year-long separation when Alfonso had to return to Panama while immigration issues were being sorted out, although he’s now in the United States on a green card.
“It was a long process; it was an expensive far beyond the reach of most families,” Kolbe said. “We are immensely fortunate that Hector has now secured an investment visa that allows him to remain here with me. Many other couples, however, are not so fortunate. Their ability to secure a solution that will allow them to build a home, family and business together is elusive and difficult to realize.”
Kolbe, a trade expert who works at the German Marshall Fund think tank, also addressed economic benefits of passing language for bi-national same-sex couples as part of immigration reform — particularly support for the provision among U.S. businesses.
“The comprehensive immigration reform bill now under consideration by this Committee includes important provisions to make U.S. businesses more competitive,” Kolbe said. “UAFA does the same, which is why it is supported by Fortune 500 companies like Intel, Marriott, Texas Instruments and US Airways, who have called on lawmakers of both parties to support its passage. The failure to recognize lesbian and gay families in our immigration laws has a direct impact on American business.”
As part of his testimony, Kolbe read a letter signed by 28 prominent American businesses calling for UAFA citing loss of productivity, costs of transferring and retaining employees and missed opportunities to bring talent into the United States as a result of the current system.
“It is time, Chairman Leahy and members of the Committee, to fix this part of our immigration law,” Kolbe concluded. “The opportunity is too rare, and the positive impact too great to leave anyone behind. Adding UAFA to the committee bill would be a big step toward making it a truly comprehensive bill.”
Kolbe and Alfonso plan to wed in D.C. on May 18. While straight Americans are able to sponsor their foreign spouses for residency within the United States, Kolbe doesn’t have that option because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which he voted for as a member of Congress in 1996. The U.S. Supreme Court could address this problem if justices issue a ruling by June striking down Section 3 of DOMA as a result of pending litigation.
Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said Kolbe’s personal story and background as a member of Congress make him an excellent spokesperson for UAFA.
“Congressman Kolbe is the perfect messenger to remind Senators that this is about families, not partisan politics,” Ralls said. “This issue impacts Republicans and Democrats, and it UAFA’s inclusion in the bill should garner bipartisan support, too.”
A number of Democratic senators on the panel expressed support for Kolbe and including UAFA as part of immigration reform, such as Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.). Republicans were present during the hearing — including Ranking Member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — but didn’t address Kolbe’s testimony or UAFA.
Franken, a UAFA co-sponsor, was among those who expressed support for including UAFA as part of immigration reform, saying he and colleagues will do “everything we can” to amend reform to include the measure.
“You’re not alone,” Franken said. “I’ve heard many stories from my LGBT constituents about how our immigration system is tearing their families apart.”
Franken cited a story from a constituent, whom he called “Mark,” a Fortune 500 company worker who has an Italian partner, Alberto, that intended to move to Minnesota under a waiver program for Europeans.
According to Franken, when they were identified as a same-sex couple by Customs & Border Protection at the airport, Alberto was interrogated, forced to surrender his personal email password and was eventually he couldn’t remain in the country. Alberto is now in the United States on a visa, but that’s only a temporary solution.
“Mark is prohibited from sponsoring Alberto for permanent residency,” Franken said. “Under current law, Mark must choose between his career and the person he loves. It isn’t fair, it’s wrong and I just wanted to tell you that I and many others senators on this panel are going to do everything we can to try to see that we amend this bill to protect all families, including those of all LGBT Americans.”
Another question came from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), another UAFA co-sponsor, who asked how the issue for bi-national same-sex couples would be affected if the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA. Kolbe said it’s not clear what the ruling of the Supreme Court would be in June, but emphasized the legislation isn’t about marriage.
“This bill does not deal with the issue of marriage at all,” Kolbe replied. “While DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes, this legislation simply says for immigration purposes, an individual can immigrate into the United States.”
Following the hearing, Kolbe told the Washington Blade that nothing the senators said surprised him and other issues related to immigration reform, such as temporary employment for migrant workers, were more controversial than same-sex couples.
“There was nothing that was terribly surprising in the questions,” Kolbe said. “I think it went pretty much as expected. I think all the members are really focused very heavily on this H-1B program and how that’s going to be made to work.”
Kolbe said he believes the committee has the votes to amend the immigration legislation, but whether that will remain in the bill as the legislative process goes forward remains in question.
“I think it’s very likely that it will be included in the bill when it goes to the Senate floor,” Kolbe said. “What will happen on the floor — and even more critically, what will happen in the House of Representatives — I think it’s just way to early to tell yet.”
Read Kolbe’s written testimony here.