In the wake of a Senate committee decision to exclude bi-national gay couples from immigration reform, LGBT rights supporters are turning to a possible floor amendment as a way to salvage inclusion in the bill.
LGBT groups working on the issue — Immigration Equality and the Human Rights Campaign — told the Washington Blade they’ve asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to offer the language as an amendment when it comes before the full Senate as expected this month.
Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said discussions are underway to push for a floor amendment along the lines of UAFA, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States, but a lot depends on the case before the Supreme Court challenging the Defense of Marriage Act.
“I can tell you if the immigration bill is moving toward a vote before we have a Supreme Court DOMA ruling — or after we have a bad Supreme Court ruling — a floor option is something we very much want to look at,” Ralls said. “We’re kind of in two competing timelines here; it’s not entirely clear how quickly the immigration bill will move forward for a vote, and we don’t know exactly when we’re going to have a Supreme Court ruling.”
Bombarded by accusations on his Facebook page that he betrayed the LGBT community by asking the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold off on the amendment, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in response raised the possibility of a floor amendment.
“I’ve been a lead sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act for a number of years and I believe and desire that its principles should be included in the immigration bill,” Schumer writes. “There will be an opportunity to add it to the bill on the Senate floor.”
But none of the groups involved say they’ve received commitments from Leahy that he’ll introduce the amendment on the Senate floor, nor has the Vermont senator publicly committed to offering the amendment.
Jessica Brady, a Senate Judiciary Committee spokesperson, said she doesn’t have anything to offer in terms of public commitment for offering UAFA as an amendment on the floor.
“I’m going to have to refer you back to Sen. Leahy’s comments in the markup, when he said he would continue to fight to take discrimination out of the law,” Brady said. “He didn’t specify if he would offer an amendment on the floor.”
Moreover, finding the 60 votes on the Senate floor to end a filibuster on UAFA is significantly more difficult than obtaining the simple majority needed for passage in committee.
Assuming all 54 members of the Democratic caucus support UAFA — and the votes from Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mark Landrieu (D-La.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who don’t support marriage equality, are in question — five Republicans would need to vote “yes” in addition to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the only GOP co-sponsor. The Democrats are now short one vote following the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
Ralls said finding the necessary 60 votes to end a filibuster on the Senate floor will be “tough,” but he expects Schumer and other Democrats in committee who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for amendments out of fear of losing Republican support for immigration reform to find support for a measure for bi-national couples on the floor.
“I think all of the Democrats on that committee who told Sen. Leahy not to offer the amendment last week owe to our families and they owe it to Sen. Leahy to find the path to 60 votes if we need them to get us there,” Ralls said.
The White House has talked about the possibility of UAFA as a floor amendment to immigration reform once it reaches the Senate floor. Under questioning from the Washington Blade on Friday, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he thinks “there is an amendment process on the Senate floor where this could be considered, so I don’t want to predict the outcome at this point.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Schumer said he expects the immigration bill to see action soon on the Senate floor — meaning the question of whether UAFA will be introduced as a floor amendment will have to be answered soon.
“We’re going to put immigration on the floor starting on June 10. I predict it will pass the Senate by July 4,” Schumer said. “We’re hoping to get 70 votes — up to 70 votes, which means a lot of Republicans.”
LGBT groups continue to back reform
Even without the provision for gay couples, LGBT groups are continuing to say they support the measure because it contains other provisions that would directly impact the LGBT community and provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 267,000 LGBT people who are among the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
Among the provisions that directly impact the LGBT community is repeal of the one-year deadline on filing for asylum — a deadline that many LGBT asylum seekers in the United States miss because they’re unaware of it or lack the financial resource to meet it — and improvements in immigration detention facilities to benefit transgender detainees.
In a conference call with reporters, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, GLAAD and GetEQUAL highlighted these aspects of immigration reform to bolster its support among LGBT people.
Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, was among those who said the provisions related to asylum and detentions facilities are important to the work done by LGBT advocates.
“We also recognized early that the bill will impact many more LGBT people than simply would be impacted by UAFA,” Kendell said. “We have seen some of the most horrific stories of damage done, discrimination, harassment, terrorizing [involving] LGBT asylum seekers and detention facilities in this country.”
Ralls acknowledged that Immigration Equality continues to support the immigration bill despite discontent over the lack of UAFA-like language in the legislation.
“We’re very disappointed that the bill does not currently include binational families, but as the LGBT organization that speaks to more immigrants than every other group in our community combined, we support the bill, as it includes important provisions that would help many of those individuals, many of whom are our clients, too,” Ralls said.
Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, also said his organization still supports immigration reform even without language for bi-national gay couples.
“We are committed to immigration reform,” Sainz said. “Undocumented individuals that happen to be LGBT will immeasurably benefit from immigration reform.”
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House has its own “Gang of Eight” working on its version of reform, although the legislation that group of lawmakers produces, as Ralls noted, isn’t expected to include a provision for bi-national gay couples.
“Our strategy all along has been we want to be in the Senate bill, that if a Senate and House bill go to conference, we can rely on our champions in both chambers to make sure that we stay in the bill that reaches the president’s desk,” Ralls said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), sponsor of UAFA in the House, would likely be the one to amend the bill to include the provision, but given the conservative nature of the House, amending the bill in either committee or the floor to include UAFA seems unlikely.
Ilan Kayatsky, a Nadler spokesperson, said plans for what will happen with the House bill after it’s unveiled by the House “Gang of Eight” are unclear.
“We still don’t know what form or process the House CIR bill will take, so it’s premature to sort out the UAFA specifics just now,” Kayatsky said.
What happens if the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA?
The best hope for bi-national couples may be a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on pending litigation challenging DOMA, the federal law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The Obama administration has consistently cited this law, and only this law, as the reason why married bi-national gay couples are ineligible for a visa through the marriage-based green card application process.
Moreover, UAFA would no longer be operable for these legally married couples if DOMA were struck down. Even though UAFA provides a path to residency for “permanent partners,” it would no longer provide relief for couples in these states because the law, under Section 2, subsection D, only applies to those who are ”unable to contract with that other individual a marriage cognizable under this Act.”
But the situation is murkier for bi-national couples who live in states without marriage equality. Will someone living in Texas be able to sponsor someone as a “permanent partner” or will they have to travel to a marriage equality state, wed, and then apply for a green card through a marriage-based green card application process? What if they cannot leave the state out of financial constraints?
Ralls said the way Immigration Equality interprets UAFA, the law would still have some use in non-marriage equality states even if DOMA is struck down.
“In some ways, it would make it simpler for couples in non-married states, they would not have to travel, they would be able to apply from their home state for their green card,” Ralls said. “So, in some ways, it’s broader and it applies to couples in all 50 states without forcing them to travel.”
Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, said he can’t say at this point under what circumstances a bi-national same-sex couple in a non-marriage equality state would be eligible to apply for a visa if UAFA were law and DOMA were struck down.
“I don’t believe there is a definition of that term in the bill and the focus has been on creating relief from DOMA, not the range of reasons that might make it impossible to travel to a state where same-sex couples can marry,” Davidson said. “Indeed, if the bill were to pass, a court might interpret ‘unable to contract’ to reference legal inability not practical inability in light of one’s personal circumstances.”
But even with the possibility of a Supreme Court ruling against DOMA that would allow at least married bi-national couples to stay in the United States, Ralls said it’s incumbent upon Congress to act.
“We think DOMA is unconstitutional, and we hope the court agrees,” Ralls said. “But when it comes to advocating for real families who are impacted by this, we’re not willing to put all of our eggs in a basket that hasn’t yet been delivered. I do not want to have to tell our couples, the day after a bad DOMA ruling, ‘I wish we had fought harder in Congress.’”