Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Tuesday withheld amendments to include gay couples as part of immigration reform in the aftermath of speeches — sometimes tearful — from Democrats on the panel who said they couldn’t support the measures.
After an extended speech on why he believes discrimination against gay couples is wrong — Leahy said “with a heavy heart” he wouldn’t introduce the amendments before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They would have made bi-national same-sex couples equal under the law to straight couples for immigration purposes.
“In the immigration context, if you’re an American and fall in love will someone of the same sex from a different country and you get married legally, your spouse will not be treated like any other immigrant spouse would be by your federal government,” Leahy said. “My amendments would change that. I don’t want to be the senator who asks Americans to choose between the love of their life and the love of their country.”
During his remarks, Leahy asked members of the “Gang of Eight” who produced the base bill and were also members of the Senate Judiciary Committee why they decided to exclude gay couples from the initial legislation.
Under current law, gay Americans are unable to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States — even if they’re married — unlike straight Americans. For couples that are married, that’s because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. LGBT advocates had been pushing Congress to rectify this issue as part of comprehensive immigration reform.
Two amendments were proposed by Leahy. One mirrored the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States. The other would have allowed for the approval of marriage-based green card applications for married same-sex couples.
Democrats who are known for being LGBT rights supporters — Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) — said they were torn on the issue, but couldn’t support the amendments out of fear they would lose Republican support and it would kill the legislative package.
Feinstein said the Supreme Court, which is currently considering the constitutionality of DOMA, may make the issue “moot” because a ruling against the anti-gay law in June would end federal discrimination against married same-sex couples.
“We now know that this is going to blow the agreement apart,” Feinstein said. “I don’t want to lose Sen. Graham’s vote because Sen. Graham’s vote can represent and be used as the rationale for dozens of other [lawmakers] who then will not vote for the immigration bill. … I am for what Sen. Leahy is proposing, I would just implore to hold off on this amendment at this time.”
Schumer, a member of the “Gang of Eight,” said he tried to persuade other senators to support the idea and believes current law is “rank discrimination,” but can’t bring himself to support the amendments because of Republican opposition.
“If we make the effort to add it to this bill, they will walk away,” Schumer said. “They’ve said it publicly, they’ve told me privately — I believe them. The result: no equality, no immigration bill. Everyone loses.”
Prior to the vote, Schumer was targeted by LGBT groups for being the only Democrat on the committee to not voice support for including UAFA as part of the larger package.
Durbin was particularly emotional and had tears in his eyes as he explained why they couldn’t support the measures. A member of the “Gang of Eight,” Durbin said he supports UAFA, but doesn’t see immigration reform as the best vehicle for the measure.
“I believe in my heart of hearts that what you’re doing is the right and just thing … but I believe this is the wrong moment, this is the wrong bill,” Durbin said. “There are approximately 250,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants in America that would benefit from passage of immigration reform. I want to make certain they have that chance.”
LGBT rights groups responded to the committee’s exclusion of same-sex couples from immigration reform with vocal disappointment.
Rachel Tiven, executive director of the LGBT group Immigration Equality, attended the markup and — while she said she’s “proud’ of Leahy for his support — expressed frustration with other Democrats.
“I’m very proud of Sen. Leahy; I’m very dismayed that his colleagues did not stand up with him to talk about the dignity of LGBT immigrant families,” Tiven said. “Only Sen. Leahy talked about the LGBT immigrants that he represents who have dreams, too, and who want to see a good bill passed that will help everyone, and who need immigration reform as badly as any other immigrant.”
Tiven named Democrats on the panel with whom she was particularly disappointed because of their previously articulated support for the LGBT community.
“To hear Sen. Durbin say, ‘Well, this is an outside issue like gun control,’ to hear that Sen. Franken didn’t speak up for families like Ginger and Ness Madeiros, whose visa runs out in August — what are they and their eight-month-old son going to do?” Tiven said. “I can’t imagine how they’re feeling right now about Sen. Franken. How could he not say these are immigrant families, too?”
With the exception of Schumer, Tiven maintained the Democrats on the panel expressed support for including same-sex couples in the reform package, which made their statements during the committee markup surprising.
But Republican members of the panel were most opposed to including the measures. They reiterated their opposition to including the measure in the package and said adopting them would break apart the coalition that helped put it together.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Republican member of the “Gang of Eight,” said the legislation would lose support from evangelical Christians and the Catholic Church, who’ve supported the measure, if those protections were included.
“I support traditional marriage without animosity,” Graham said. “I’m not married; I guess that means maybe I shouldn’t speak at all about it, but I do believe that the people of my state, and the people of other states who have gone different ways than Vermont, believe it would throw the coalition out of balance.”
When Leahy asked Graham if anything in the amendments would require South Carolina to change its state law on marriage, Graham said no, but maintained it would be making him vote in favor of a concept he opposes.
“You got me on immigration; you don’t got me on marriage,” Graham said. “I can’t just tell any more directly; you want to keep me on immigration; let’s stay on immigration.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another GOP member of the “Gang of Eight,” also said he expected the coalition that put the bill together to fall apart if same-sex couples were included.
“This is an issue that is being addressed by the courts right now, I think that it would certainly upset the coalition that we have,” Flake said. “Certainly, we in Arizona, like in South Carolina, have spoken on the issue. It would certainly mean that this bill would not move forward. That would be a real shame, given how far we’ve come and the work that’s gone into this.”
Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress, pointed at Republicans as the reason why same-sex couples weren’t included in the legislation.
“We’re all disappointed that at this juncture in the process, a small handful of Republicans prevented the provision from being voted on, but we’ve got a long way to go in the process and we’ll continue to work hard to secure the votes on the floor if it comes up,” Stachelberg said.
Following the discussion on the Leahy amendments, the committee reported out the legislation by a 13-5 vote. Supporters of immigration reform in the room — largely members of immigrant community — chanted, “Yes we can! Yes we can!” and embraced senators who voted in favor of the legislation as they snapped photos with them.
According to a report from the Williams Institute, an estimated 275,000 undocumented LGBT Americans would have a path to citizenship as the legislation currently stands if it reaches President Obama’s desk and is signed into law.
In a statement after the vote, Obama, who called for a gay-inclusive bill as part of his vision for reform, commended the committee for completing work on the legislation and urged a floor vote as soon as possible.
“None of the committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I , but in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line,” Obama said. “I encourage the full Senate to bring this bipartisan bill to the floor at the earliest possible opportunity and remain hopeful that the amendment process will lead to further improvements.”
Leahy’s announcement came after an Associated Press report saying the White House had asked the Vermont senator to hold off on offering the amendments until the measure goes before the full Senate.
It’s unclear whether Leahy will introduce the amendments once the legislation reaches the Senate floor, which is expected early in June. Passage on the Senate floor would be significantly more difficult than passage would have been in committee if a 60-vote threshold is necessary to overcome a filibuster.
After the committee reported out the bill, the Washington Blade asked Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) whether he wants to see UAFA brought up as an amendment on the Senate floor.
“You’ll have to ask Sen. Leahy about that,” Schumer replied. “As you heard, I believe strongly in UAFA. I don’t think I have to say anything more; I spoke long enough on it.”
Although the amendment for same-sex couples wasn’t included, the committee on Monday rejected an amendment that would have removed a provision supported by LGBT advocates that was included in the base bill.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) offered two amendments that would have eliminated the repeal of the one-year filing deadline for asylum seekers. One amendment failed on a vote of 6-12 and the other failed on a vote of 9-9.
LGBT advocates had supported that provision in the base bill because LGBT asylum seekers often don’t know they have a one-year deadline to apply for asylum in the United States, or lack financial resources to make the application.