LGBT groups are urging supporters of the Uniting American Families Act to stand firm in the face of threats from Senate Republicans that inclusion of gay couples in immigration reform would derail the larger legislation.
A number of LGBT advocates made statements this week calling for inclusion of bi-national same-sex couples amid expectations that the vote on including them as part of immigration reform could happen as early as next week. These advocates are seeking the addition of language along the lines of UAFA, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, issued a statement late Wednesday saying Congress must pass an immigration bill that includes gay couples and the notion that their addition would block the legislation from passing is an “offensive ruse.”
“This bluster is nothing more than a political maneuver designed to divide the pro-reform coalition and at the same time appease a small but vocal group of social conservatives that will do anything to stop progress for lesbian and gay couples,” Griffin said. “The LGBT community will not stand for Congress placing the blame of their own dysfunction on our shoulders.”
Another joint statement earlier in the day from a quintet of LGBT organizations — the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, United We Dream and Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project — expressed a similar sentiment.
“We do not believe that our friends in the evangelical faith community or conservative Republicans would allow the entire immigration reform bill to fail simply because it affords 28,500 same-sex couples equal immigration rights,” the organizations state. “This take-it-or-leave-it stance with regard to same-sex bi-national couples is not helpful when we all share the same goal of passing comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship.”
Both of these statements emphasize that LGBT groups support passage of comprehensive immigration reform and take note of an estimate from the Williams Institute that 267,000 of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are LGBT.
The moment of truth for whether UAFA will come up as an amendment when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers comprehensive immigration reform will come soon. The deadline for committee members to submit amendments to the bill is Tuesday at 5 p.m.; the members will decide which to offer during committee mark ups.
LGBT advocates say they’ve received assurances that UAFA will come before the committee — likely from Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who sponsors the standalone bill. A committee aide wouldn’t say on Thursday whether a decision has been made on whether the amendment will be introduced, but added Leahy believes equality in family unification needs to be part of the reform package.
During a committee hearing last week, Leahy said the first day for voting on amendments will be next week on May 9. Thereafter, the committee will continue to consider amendments on May 14, May 16, May 20 and every day that follows to complete consideration and have a final vote on the bill. Chances are the amendment will come up on one of these later days.
Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said on Tuesday he still expects a UAFA-like amendment to come up during the committee markup and remains confident the measure will succeed.
“Our expectation is still that we have the votes,” Ralls said. “I think, to be totally honest, at the end of the day, this is going to come down to a question of whether our friends on the committee buckle to the bullying of our opposition on the committee. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that’s not the case we’re counseling on all the Democrats to stand strong, but, as I predicted before, the opposition is going to be loud and is going to put a lot of pressure on our friends.”
But Senate Republicans are warning that inclusion of this provision would dismantle the bipartisan coalition and prevent the larger vehicle from finding the necessary 60 votes to pass on the Senate floor.
An article earlier this week in Politico titled, “Gay rights push threatens immigration deal,” quotes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as saying inclusion of UAFA will “virtually guarantee” the legislation won’t pass.
“This issue is a difficult enough issue as it is,” Rubio is quoted as saying. “I respect everyone’s views on it. But ultimately, if that issue is injected into this bill, the bill will fail and the coalition that helped put it together will fall apart.”
A similar article in the New York Times quotes Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another member of the “Gang of Eight,” as saying he believes LGBT-inclusion in immigration reform would lead to failure for the immigration package.
“There’s a reason this language wasn’t included in the Gang of Eight’s bill: It’s a deal-breaker for most Republicans,” Flake is quoted as saying. “Finding consensus on immigration legislation is tough enough without opening the bill up to social issues.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is the only Democrat on the panel who doesn’t co-sponsor UAFA or made a public statement in support of it — even though she’s known as an LGBT advocate and has been the lead sponsor of legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.
Ralls said another Democrat on the committee that’s of concern is Sen. Chuck Schumer, another member of the “Gang of Eight” — even though the New York Democrat is among the co-sponsors of UAFA because of his desire to see the overall immigration bill passed.
“The bill is Sen. Schumer’s baby; he’s part of the ‘Gang of Eight,’” Ralls said. “We know that he wants to see it passed. I know that probably, to be honest, Sen. Schumer is getting some of the biggest pressure from Republican colleagues on the committee because of his role in crafting the bill. Now, he has told families in New York that have met with him that he really wants to get this done. I don’t doubt that, and I hope that that’s the message he’s delivering to Republicans on the committee as well.”
Schumer’s office didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment for this article. An article earlier this month from Gay City News quotes the senator as saying, “I believe strongly in UAFA and I’m going to do everything I can to get it into the bill,” but also says he declined to speculate on how that would be accomplished.
Still, at least seven of the 10 Democrats on the committee have offered strong statements in favor of including UAFA as part of immigration reform, such as Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who said during a committee hearing that supporters of the bill will do “everything we can” to make sure UAFA is included in the bill.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the lone GOP co-sponsor of UAFA in the Senate, is pledging to take an active role in determining whether UAFA should be included in the bill. Kevin Kelley, a Collins spokesperson, told the Blade she’ll work with Leahy to determine “the best way to bring their bill before the Senate for consideration.”
“Sen. Collins’ Maine offices have been contacted by same-sex couples who have found themselves forced to choose between the person they love and the country they love due to our current immigration laws,” Kelley said. “More than two dozen countries already recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes. The Uniting American Families Act would simply update our nation’s immigration laws to treat bi-national, same-sex permanent partners fairly.”
With questions over whether gay couples will be included in immigration reform, attention may turn to President Obama and whether he’ll push to make sure a provision for them is included. The White House has said Obama’s vision for immigration reform includes gay couples, but at the same time Obama has said he doesn’t want to be “heavy-handed” in telling Congress what the legislation should entail.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during a press gaggle abroad Air Force on Thursday that Obama has been in contact with the major players on comprehensive immigration reform, but doesn’t have a read on whether LGBT inclusion was among the topics that were discussed.
“The legislation crafted by the ‘Gang of Eight’ broadly reflects the principles that the president has laid out, but it is not word for word in keeping with all of what he would do if he were to write it himself,” Carney added. “And we have said that we support that provision, but we also think it’s very important to recognize that the overall bill here accomplishes what the president believes needs to be accomplished and is in keeping with his principles.”
Should the amendment pass as part of the bill in committee, the next hurdle for UAFA will be making sure that it remains in the bill when it comes to the full Senate floor. But Immigration Equality’s Ralls anticipated that the 60-vote threshold to remove the provision wouldn’t be met and was confident it would remain intact.
The more daunting issue is the Republican-controlled House. That chamber hasn’t been amenable to pro-LGBT legislation, although it did pass an LGBT-inclusive bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act at the start of this Congress. Moreover, how the House will approach immigration reform remains in question. House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has said he plans to handle immigration reform as a series of bills as opposed to a larger package at one time.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who sponsors UAFA in the House, said in a statement to the Blade on Thursday he’s talking with Senate colleagues about including UAFA as part of immigration reform, but the process in the House is still in an early phase.
“Inclusion in the Senate, or in the conference report that ultimately reconciles the Senate and House bills, may be our best chance for passage,” Nadler said. “It’s too early to speculate about the House process, as there is no bill, nor clarity from the Republican Leadership on its intentions. I have spoken directly with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and others about UAFA, and I am gathering new cosponsors every day. I can assure you that I continue to work publicly and behind the scenes to ensure that the LGBT community is a part of immigration reform. We cannot solve one of our most pressing social problems – immigration – by leaving out a large and vital segment of our society.”