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Gay GOP former congressman calls for UAFA passage

Kolbe testifies before the Senate on LGBT-inclusive immigration reform



Jim Kolbe, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Kolbe, gay news, Washington Blade

Former congressman Jim Kolbe testified before the Senate on UAFA (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A gay Republican former U.S. House member testified before the Senate on Monday in favor of including bi-national same-sex couples as part of comprehensive immigration reform — an issue that affects him personally.

Jim Kolbe, who represented Arizona in Congress from 1985 to 2007, spoke during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about LGBT-inclusion in immigration reform both in personal terms and economic benefits for the country.

“While the bill you are considering is an excellent starting point for reform, I submit to you that it is still incomplete,” Kolbe said. “Families like mine are left behind as part of this proposal.”

Language to enable gay Americans to sponsor a same-sex partner for residency in the United States wasn’t included as part of the 844-page base bill for comprehensive immigration reform that was produced by the “Gang of Eight.”

Standalone legislation along these lines is known as the Uniting American Families Act. LGBT advocates say they’ve received assurances such language would be offered as an amendment — possibly by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — when the committee marks up the reform legislation.

Kolbe is in an eight-year relationship with Panama native Hector Alfonso, who came to the United States on Fulbright scholarship to pursue studies in special education and has been a teacher for two decades. The couple had to endure a year-long separation when Alfonso had to return to Panama while immigration issues were being sorted out, although he’s now in the United States on a green card.

“It was a long process; it was an expensive far beyond the reach of most families,” Kolbe said. “We are immensely fortunate that Hector has now secured an investment visa that allows him to remain here with me. Many other couples, however, are not so fortunate. Their ability to secure a solution that will allow them to build a home, family and business together is elusive and difficult to realize.”

Kolbe, a trade expert who works at the German Marshall Fund think tank, also addressed economic benefits of passing language for bi-national same-sex couples as part of immigration reform — particularly support for the provision among U.S. businesses.

“The comprehensive immigration reform bill now under consideration by this Committee includes important provisions to make U.S. businesses more competitive,” Kolbe said. “UAFA does the same, which is why it is supported by Fortune 500 companies like Intel, Marriott, Texas Instruments and US Airways, who have called on lawmakers of both parties to support its passage. The failure to recognize lesbian and gay families in our immigration laws has a direct impact on American business.”

As part of his testimony, Kolbe read a letter signed by 28 prominent American businesses calling for UAFA citing loss of productivity, costs of transferring and retaining employees and missed opportunities to bring talent into the United States as a result of the current system.

“It is time, Chairman Leahy and members of the Committee, to fix this part of our immigration law,” Kolbe concluded. “The opportunity is too rare, and the positive impact too great to leave anyone behind. Adding UAFA to the committee bill would be a big step toward making it a truly comprehensive bill.”

Kolbe and Alfonso plan to wed in D.C. on May 18. While straight Americans are able to sponsor their foreign spouses for residency within the United States, Kolbe doesn’t have that option because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which he voted for as a member of Congress in 1996. The U.S. Supreme Court could address this problem if justices issue a ruling by June striking down Section 3 of DOMA as a result of pending litigation.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said Kolbe’s personal story and background as a member of Congress make him an excellent spokesperson for UAFA.

“Congressman Kolbe is the perfect messenger to remind Senators that this is about families, not partisan politics,” Ralls said. “This issue impacts Republicans and Democrats, and it UAFA’s inclusion in the bill should garner bipartisan support, too.”

A number of Democratic senators on the panel expressed support for Kolbe and including UAFA as part of immigration reform, such as Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.). Republicans were present during the hearing — including Ranking Member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — but didn’t address Kolbe’s testimony or UAFA.

Franken, a UAFA co-sponsor, was among those who expressed support for including UAFA as part of immigration reform, saying he and colleagues will do “everything we can” to amend reform to include the measure.

“You’re not alone,” Franken said. “I’ve heard many stories from my LGBT constituents about how our immigration system is tearing their families apart.”

Franken cited a story from a constituent, whom he called “Mark,” a Fortune 500 company worker who has an Italian partner, Alberto, that intended to move to Minnesota under a waiver program for Europeans.

According to Franken, when they were identified as a same-sex couple by Customs & Border Protection at the airport, Alberto was interrogated, forced to surrender his personal email password and was eventually he couldn’t remain in the country. Alberto is now in the United States on a visa, but that’s only a temporary solution.

“Mark is prohibited from sponsoring Alberto for permanent residency,” Franken said. “Under current law, Mark must choose between his career and the person he loves. It isn’t fair, it’s wrong and I just wanted to tell you that I and many others senators on this panel are going to do everything we can to try to see that we amend this bill to protect all families, including those of all LGBT Americans.”

Another question came from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), another UAFA co-sponsor, who asked how the issue for bi-national same-sex couples would be affected if the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA. Kolbe said it’s not clear what the ruling of the Supreme Court would be in June, but emphasized the legislation isn’t about marriage.

“This bill does not deal with the issue of marriage at all,” Kolbe replied. “While DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes, this legislation simply says for immigration purposes, an individual can immigrate into the United States.”

Following the hearing, Kolbe told the Washington Blade that nothing the senators said surprised him and other issues related to immigration reform, such as temporary employment for migrant workers, were more controversial than same-sex couples.

“There was nothing that was terribly surprising in the questions,” Kolbe said. “I think it went pretty much as expected. I think all the members are really focused very heavily on this H-1B program and how that’s going to be made to work.”

Kolbe said he believes the committee has the votes to amend the immigration legislation, but whether that will remain in the bill as the legislative process goes forward remains in question.

“I think it’s very likely that it will be included in the bill when it goes to the Senate floor,” Kolbe said. “What will happen on the floor — and even more critically, what will happen in the House of Representatives — I think it’s just way to early to tell yet.”

Read Kolbe’s written testimony here.



House GOP sinks their own spending bill, Dems object to anti-LGBTQ riders

Vote was 216-212



U.S. Capitol
U.S. Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A group of four hardline House Republicans on Thursday joined Democratic colleagues to sink their own spending bill, a $886 billion military appropriations package full of riders from GOP members that include anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ provisions.

The 216-212 vote raised the likelihood of a government shutdown if lawmakers are unable to forge a path forward before the end of September.

“Instead of decreasing the chance of a shutdown, Speaker McCarthy is actually increasing it by wasting time on extremist proposals that cannot become law in the Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

His counterpart in the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), expressed frustration with his own caucus, characterizing the impasse he has reached with colleagues as “frustrating in the sense that I don’t understand why anybody votes against bringing the idea and having the debate.”

“And then you got all the amendments if you don’t like the bill,” he continued. “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down — it doesn’t work.”

A group of 155 House Democrats on Thursday issued a letter objecting to anti-LGBTQ provisions in the bill, the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, addressing the message to U.S. Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chair and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and U.S. Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

The effort was led by Congressional Equality Caucus Chair U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and the co-chairs of the Caucus’s Transgender Equality Task Force, U.S. Reps. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

Specifically, the letter argues several anti-equality amendments would “actively target LGBTQ+ service members and LGBTQ+ dependents and threaten the recruitment, retention, and readiness of our Armed Forces.”

Among these are riders prohibiting coverage of gender affirming healthcare interventions for service members and their dependents; banning LGBTQ Pride flags, drag shows and other events; and restricting funding for certain books in schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity.

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Senate confirms federal judge who fought for marriage equality as a lawyer

Three Republicans voted for Rita Lin’s nomination



Judge Rita Lin (Photo credit: University of California, San Francisco School of Law)

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday voted 52-45 to confirm Rita Lin’s nomination by President Joe Biden to serve as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The first Chinese American woman to serve in the role, Lin previously fought for marriage equality as an attorney in private practice with the multinational firm Morrison and Foerster.

As co-counsel in a 2012 case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court, she secured the first ruling striking down the law, which proscribed marriage as exclusively heterosexual unions, since President Obama announced his administration would no longer defend it.

The Senate’s vote to confirm Lin was supported by all present Democratic members and three Republicans: U.S. Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

Last year, during hearings for her nomination in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) objected to an article she wrote in 1998 while a junior at Harvard University calling members of the Christian Coalition “bigots.”

The Christian Coalition was founded by the late Christian media mogul Pat Robertson, who attracted controversy throughout his life and career for making sexist, homophobic and racist remarks.

Lin was appointed as a judge in the San Francisco Superior Court in 2018, and she currently presides over felony and misdemeanor criminal trials. She previously served as an Assistant United States Attorney in San Francisco.

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Wexton, ardent LGBTQ ally, will not seek re-election

Congresswoman diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy



U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and Virginia Del. Danica Roem (D-13) (Photo courtesy of Danica Roem)

U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) announced on Monday she will not seek reelection after receiving a diagnosis of progressive supranuclear palsy, a neurological disorder that the congresswoman described in a statement as “Parkinson’s on steroids.”

“I’m heartbroken to have to give up something I have loved after so many years of serving my community,” she said. “But taking into consideration the prognosis for my health over the coming years, I have made the decision not to seek reelection once my term is complete and instead spend my valued time with Andrew, our boys, and my friends and loved ones.”

A vice-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus who was formerly a co-chair of its Transgender Equality Task Force, Wexton has been a staunch ally of the LGBTQ community since her first election to Congress in 2018 and during previous five-year tenure in the Virginia State Senate.

“.@RepWexton is a strong ally to LGBTQI+ people,” the Caucus posted on X. “We extend our support to her & her family during this time and thank her for championing LGBTQI+ equality.”

“On my lowest days, she’s quite literally been a shoulder to cry on, and on my best days, she was the second person I told about my engagement last year,” Virginia Del. Danica Roem (D-13) told the Washington Blade on Monday.

The congresswoman is “a role model, mentor and genuine public servant whose friendship and advocacy means the world to me,” said Roem, who is the first openly trans representative to serve in any state legislature and will be the first in Virginia’s State Senate if she is elected to the newly drawn 30th district seat next year.

“I spent so many years closeted in part because of the fear and loathing perpetuated by elected officials toward LGBTQ people in Northern Virginia broadly and greater Prince William [County] specifically that made for a hostile, unwelcoming environment,” she said.

“To go from that to having such outspoken, fearless representation from my member of Congress in Rep. Jennifer Wexton hasn’t so much been a breath of fresh air as much as a completely new biosphere,” Roem said.

She added, “I’m so grateful to her for everything she’s done and the example of inclusivity she’s set for her constituents.”

Roem pointed the Blade to an article in the Washington Post entitled, “How Jennifer Wexton became the ‘patron saint of the transgender community,’” which details the ways in which LGBTQ rights “with an emphasis on the transgender community” had become Wexton’s “signature issue” just “six months into her first term.”

In fact, on the day she took office, the congresswoman became only the second member to fly a transgender Pride flag outside her office.

Equality Virginia, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, also noted Wexton’s advocacy for the community in a post Monday on X: “Thank you @RepWexton for being a tireless advocate for LGBTQ+ people in the General Assembly and in Congress.”

“You’ve made our commonwealth a better place,” the group wrote, adding, “we’re sending our love and strength to you, your family and your entire team.”

“In 2018, this state senator I called my legislative role model and looked up to so much as a first-year delegate, came over for dinner crepes to share her wisdom, humor and guidance,” Roem said on X. “Five years later, Rep. @JenniferWexton is still a mentor, friend and champion for NOVA.”

The Washington Post reported Wexton’s planned departure means her seat representing Virginia’s 10th Congressional District could be vulnerable in next year’s elections, as it was held by Republicans for 40 years prior to the congresswoman’s defeat of GOP incumbent Barbara Comstock in 2018.

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