As President Obama prepares an anticipated executive order on immigration, some see a noteworthy shift in GOP focus away from attacking LGBT rights in favor of targeting the immigrant community.
The final act of the U.S. House of Representatives before adjourning for August recess was passing a bill aimed at addressing the influx of Central American child refugees seeking relief at the Texas border.
But instead of passing an emergency $3.7 billion in supplemental funding requested by the White House to enhance capacity for detainment, the chamber passed by a 223-189 vote a much lower $694 million package put together by conservatives like Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) for a different purpose.
The legislation would adjust anti-trafficking laws so the child refugees can be sent home quickly and without deportation hearings. Additionally, it would terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, which enables deferred action on deportation for young, undocumented immigrants who entered the country at an early age, also known as DREAMers.
The House passed the legislation following a hostile floor debate amid expectations that President Obama is prepared to use executive authority in some way to protect as many as five million undocumented immigrants living in the United States from deportation.
In a floor speech just before passage of the House bill, Bachmann said the legislation was intended to block Obama from taking any additional administrative action.
“So with this DACA bill, effectively, we will put forward the strongest possible legislative response that this body could put forward,” Bachmann said. “We say in this bill that the president has no power, no authority administratively to grant permits which would effectively grant amnesty to 5 to 6 million foreign nationals illegally in the United States. In other words, Mr. Speaker, we will put a handcuff on one of the president’s hands.”
Bachmann later said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) should bring the Senate back into session to “put the other handcuff on this lawless president’s hands.” Those remarks incensed gay Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) to the point that he called for them to be stricken from the congressional record, but that request was rejected by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), on the grounds the request wasn’t timely.
The legislation, which President Obama has vowed to veto and has no chance of passing in the Senate, was criticized in a statement by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest upon passage.
“The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program prioritizes the limited resources of the Department of Homeland Security to deport dangerous criminals rather than DREAMers,” Earnest said. “It is extraordinary that House Republicans are demanding that we reverse that prioritization as a price for getting the resources needed to deal with the urgent humanitarian situation at the border, reduce the immigration court backlog, and address the root cause of child migration.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Republican control of Congress often meant attacks on LGBT rights. In 1996, former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia led efforts in Congress to pass the Defense of Marriage Act, a bill to prohibit federal recognition of same-sex marriages, after a court ruling in Hawaii suggested the state could legalize same-sex marriage. President Clinton signed the law after his administration assured Congress of the bill’s constitutionality.
Even under the Obama administration, the chamber under the leadership of House Speaker John Boehner during the first two years of Republican control passed measures against LGBT people, although they were more under the radar. In addition to defending DOMA in court after the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the law, the House voted to affirm the federal ban on same-sex marriage legislatively on at least three separate occasions.
But that same hostility against LGBT people has considerably diminished in the current Congress, despite Republican control. After the Supreme Court issued rulings striking down Section 3 of DOMA, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Texas) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced the State Marriage Defense Act to limit the ruling to marriage-equality states, but the bills saw no movement.
The chamber was quiet after President Obama signed an executive order barring anti-LGBT bias among federal contractors. Not even the threat of backlash emerged in Congress. When Boehner was asked during a routine press conference whether he had a reaction to the executive order, he replied, “Nope. The president signs a lot of executive orders.”
The responses to two separate executive actions from Obama on DREAMers and LGBT workers has led to speculation about why the two underrepresented groups are being treated differently.
Robert Raben, who’s gay and president of the D.C. consulting firm the Raben Group, said the difference boils down to a single factor: Influential white men are working on behalf of LGBT rights, but not immigration rights.
“The single most important variable is the presence or absence of white men,” Raben said. “I believe LGBT issues have mercifully done so well in the last 20 years because so many white men are affected by it, and they have exercised their money, their access and their establishment orientation to fight for our rights, and white men basically get what they want in this country.”
That same involvement from white men, Raben said, isn’t found in other social justice issues, such as immigration, voting rights, women’s rights and domestic violence.
Raben added the vote in the House against child refugees and DREAMers is “absolutely” evidence of the disparity resulting from the participation of white men on LGBT issues, but not other progressive causes.
“Ken Mehlman, Ted Olson and David Boies — all these white men stand up and fight for this right, and you don’t see that on affirmative action, reproductive rights, voting rights, right?” Raben said.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, accounted for the difference by saying the American people are clamoring for congressional action at the border, but aren’t making the same request to curtail LGBT rights.
“From a purely anecdotal perspective, I can say that whenever I’m visiting members of the House, the phones are ringing off the hook with constituents demanding that Republicans address border security first before tackling any other immigration-related issue,” Angelo said. “It’s relentless. When it comes to opposition to LGBT protections, Republicans have not seen the same fervor among voters in their districts.”
But not all observers see a difference in the way that Congress is treating the immigration community and the LGBT community.
Matt Foreman, director of gay and immigrant programs at the San Francisco-based Haas Jr. Fund, pointed to the lack of movement in the House on LGBT federal non-discrimination protections as evidence that LGBT people aren’t out of the woods when it comes to GOP disfavor.
“The facts just don’t bear that out: LGBT-inclusive civil rights legislation remains dead as a door nail; our movement hasn’t been able to win a basic civil rights bill in any state for more than six years due to Republican intransigence,” Foreman said.
Foreman said Republicans acted on immigration, but not the LGBT executive order, because the executive order that Obama may take to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation in the United States would be much more sweeping.
“The executive order involved simple amendments to two executive orders that are both over 40 years old and which have been amended by Democratic and Republican presidents,” Foreman said. “No one is contesting a president’s authority in this area. That’s certainly not the case with the relief extended to DREAMers through administrative action or with the potential of the president extending similar relief to up to five million more undocumented people.”
Regardless of whether the two groups are differently situated, advocates of immigration reform are already impressing upon the LGBT community that its resources are needed to help the immigration community, especially when needs for the two communities overlap.
On July 30 just before Congress adjourned, the grassroots group Southerners On New Ground and Familia: Trans & Queer Liberation held a sit-in for six hours at the offices of the LGBT Equality Caucus urging the group to call for LGBT inclusion on any executive action that Obama may take on immigration reform.
The demands of the protesters were four-fold: expand Deferred Action to the fullest extent of the law; end all programs involving law enforcement and U.S. Immigration & Custom Enforcement collaboration; elimination of the use of solitary confinement; and the expansion of protections for LGBTQ and other vulnerable populations under police and ICE custody in detention centers.
“We are proud that our country has a congressional Equality Caucus and as LGBTQ people we understand its role is to represent our whole community,” says a letter to the caucus accompanying the protest. “Ending deportations and other key issues are of equal importance to the LGBTQ community as issues such as employment and marriage.”
Days after the protest, the LGBT Equality Caucus issued a statement agreeing that any executive action Obama takes on immigration must be LGBT-inclusive and include non-discrimination policies.
“Any activity that discriminates against the LGBT community, whether it is targeting policing, bias in enforcement, harassment in detention, failure to provide medically necessary care, the unnecessary use of solitary confinement, or failure to respect gender identity cannot be supported,” the caucus statement says.
It’s those kinds of contributions from the LGBT community to the immigrant movement that the Haas Jr. Fund’s Foreman said is a good thing and already underway.
“There are tens of thousands of LGBT people who are disproportionately being harmed by the current, broken system and we can’t abandon them,” Foreman said. “Moreover, the LGBT movement cannot secure basic civil rights protections in the 29 states that still lack them without allies. And if we stand by immigrants and their families now, they will be with us in the future.”