February 9, 2011 at 7:29 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Immigration talks intrigue UAFA supporters

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has reportedly restarted talks on comprehensive immigration reform legislation (photo courtesy Schumer’s office).

Reports that key U.S. senators have restarted talks on comprehensive immigration reform legislation have piqued the interest of LGBT rights supporters who see the discussions as a potential path for passing the Uniting American Families Act.

Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said his organization would push for a UAFA-inclusive bill if the talks lead to a comprehensive immigration reform measure.

“If a bill does move forward, we are going to be working very hard and watching very closely to make sure that it is inclusive of the Uniting American Families Act,” Ralls said.

Fred Sainz, the Human Rights Campaign’s vice president of communications, said many questions remain about the substance of the talks and when they would result in a bill, but added that HRC would also advocate for making UAFA a component of comprehensive legislation.

“We would obviously fight mightily in order to include UAFA in any immigration reform proposal,” he said.

As it was introduced in the 111th Congress, UAFA would enable gay and lesbian Americans to sponsor their foreign same-sex partners for residency in the United States. Based on numbers from the U.S. Census in 2000, passage of UAFA would impact an estimated 36,000 bi-national same-sex couples in the country that could be torn apart under current immigration law.

Supporters of UAFA have seen comprehensive immigration reform legislation as the best chance for passing the pro-LGBT measure and have been working with key members of Congress and immigration groups to make the bill a provision in the larger package.

On Monday, Politico reported that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the chair of Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, had rekindled talks with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on moving forward with a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate.

Last year, Graham was involved in discussions on moving forward with a reform bill, but backed out reportedly because he was unhappy with the Senate leadership’s decision to advance the legislation ahead of a climate change bill. Neither saw passage in the 111th Congress.

Graham was quoted in Politico this week as saying his talks with Schumer on the immigration reform bill in the 112th Congress are in the very beginning stages.

“It’s in the infant stage,” Graham reportedly said. “I don’t know what the political appetite is to do something.”

Graham’s office didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to confirm that the senator had been in talks with Schumer or whether the South Carolina senator would support UAFA as part of an immigration reform bill.

But a Schumer aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed for the Blade that the New York senator and Graham restarted discussions on comprehensive immigration reform early this year, but acknowledged the talks are in “the very early stages.”

“They saw to basically pick up where they left off in terms of trying to formulate a comprehensive immigration reform package that could muster 60 votes in the Senate,” the aide said.

For now, the aide said the focus of efforts is reaching out to outside stakeholders to “try to flesh out the political appetite for passing a comprehensive reform package” in the 112th Congress.

The Politico article also reports that aides to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have been had talks with Schumer’s staff on immigration. In December, Murkowski was a surprise vote in favor of the DREAM Act — failed legislation that would have offered a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who pursued a college education or military service.

Still, Murkowski reportedly told Politico that she hadn’t yet been personally engaged in talks on immigration.

“Right now, I’m just so focused on what’s happening with the energy issues, I haven’t been engaged in it,” she was quoted as saying.

In the last Congress, Murkowski was among the Republicans who voted for hate crimes protections legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. Her office didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment on whether she would support UAFA as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package.

The chances of passing immigration legislation were bolstered last month when President Obama laid out his vision for reform as part of his State of the Union address.

“I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration,” Obama said. “And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.”

Whether sufficient votes are present to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform legislation over the next two years remains to be seen, but passage would almost certainly be more than challenging than it would have been in the last Congress.

Democrats were unable to move forward with an immigration package last year when the 111th Congress ended with the party having 58 seats in the Senate. Now Democrats have just 53 seats.

Further, the Republican-controlled House is expected to be hostile to both immigration reform legislation and UAFA.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said passage of comprehensive immigration reform in the 112th Congress would be “a major surprise” — with or without UAFA.

“Immigration is a highly controversial topic, and the parties just don’t agree,” Sabato said. “Sen. Graham is considered to the left of many of his Republican colleagues on this issue. Moreover, while it’s possible the Democratic Senate may pass something, it seems very improbable that the Republican House would.”

Still, Sabato said “you never want to rule anything out completely” in politics and noted, as the lame-duck session last year proved, bipartisan efforts can succeed if everyone gains something politically.

Even if the comprehensive immigration reform doesn’t pass this Congress, UAFA advocates have precedent working in their favor to at least have the provision for bi-national same-sex couples included as part of an initial bill.

In June, Senate leadership leaked a framework for what Democrats want to see as part of immigration reform to lure potential Republican supporters. The 26-page outline emphasizes border security as a priority, but a UAFA-like provision is also mentioned as part of the proposed legislation.

“It will eliminate discrimination in the immigration laws by permitting permanent partners of United States citizens and lawful permanent residents to obtain lawful permanent resident status,” the draft states.

Also, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) included a provision for bi-national same-sex couples in the comprehensive immigration reform legislation he introduced late last year. Still, this legislation had no Republican co-sponsors upon introduction.

Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, a think tank arm for the American Immigration Council, said predicting whether the 112th Congress would see UAFA as part of comprehensive immigration reform at this stage in talks is difficult.

“It’s hard to know whether it would make it into the final formalized piece of legislation because there’s just so many intangibles, especially when you don’t know who all the sponsors might be, where they’ll draw their lines in the sand,” she said.

Immigration Equality’s Ralls said he continues to believe if UAFA is initially included in immigration reform legislation, the provision “won’t be a deal-breaker” as the measure makes its way through Congress.

Ralls maintained the real debate for comprehensive immigration reform will be coming to an agreement on issues such as a path to citizenship, employment verification and border security.

“I’ve thought all along — and still believe — that if Republicans and Democrats can come to an agreement on those issues, that including our families is not going to be an issue that determines the fate of the overall bill,” he said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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