May 10, 2013 at 10:53 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Eyes on Schumer in push for gay-inclusive immigration bill
Chuck Schumer, Charles Schumer, New York, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Chuck Schumer‘s vote on gay-inclusion in immigration reform is in question. (D-N.Y.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has become the new focus for LGBT rights supporters seeking gay-inclusive immigration reform in the wake of comments he made suggesting he may not support amendments to include bi-national same-sex couples in the bill.

The senior senator from New York is seen as the only uncertain vote among the 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee for two amendments that would enable gay Americans to sponsor their partners for residency in the United States.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said late Thursday that “it has become crystal clear” that the fate of these amendments — proposed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — now “rests entirely” with Schumer because his vote is needed to have majority support in committee.

“Sen. Schumer will determine if our families have the 10th vote they need,” Ralls said. “If he fails to offer that vote to Senator Leahy, and the chairman in turn cannot offer the amendment, it will be his fault, and his fault alone, that LGBT families are left behind.”

Earlier on Thursday, Schumer wouldn’t commit to supporting gay inclusion in immigration reform when speaking with reporters on Capitol Hill — even though he’s a co-sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act — on the basis that he thought their inclusion would derail the larger legislation. His office didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment on his position on the Leahy amendments.

According to Buzzfeed, Schumer said, “I’m not going get into speculatives. I would very much like to see it in the bill. But we have to have a bill that has support to get [the language] passed. That’s the conundrum.”

A member of the “Gang of Eight” that produced the base immigration bill, Schumer appears to be wavering amid threats from Republican members of the gang — including Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who threatened to kill reform if the amendments are included.

Ralls noted that Schumer voted in 1996 for the Defense of Marriage Act, and said a vote in favor of the amendments would make up for that anti-gay action.

“In 1996, Senator Schumer cast a vote in favor of DOMA,” Ralls said. “Now, he has the option of cleaning up the disastrous mess he helped make. He has so far chosen, instead, to deliver our opposition’s talking points for them.”

Leahy filed two amendments earlier this week that would incorporate same-sex couples as part of immigration reform. One is along the lines of the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the country, while the other would be restricted to bi-national same-sex couples who are married. The two amendments are among the more than 300 that are on the table.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, was more confident Schumer would cast a vote in favor of gay-inclusion if the amendments were brought to a vote.

“If Chairman Leahy offers either amendment he filed, and given Sen. Schumer’s long record of supporting LGBT equality, we would expect the senator to support either of them,” Sainz said.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans in the committee seem united in suggesting that including the amendments as part of comprehensive immigration reform would be unacceptable.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Thursday during a brief interview with the Washington Blade on Capitol Hill their inclusion “would kill the bill.”

“You’ve got to have a bipartisan, heavy majority in the Senate to be able to get this bill, and that would make it very difficult,” Hatch said.

Asked whether he’d vote “no” on the amendments, Hatch replied he hopes Leahy doesn’t bring up the amendments.

“If we can change the bill effectively, so that it will work, I would like the bill to go through,” Hatch said. “I don’t want to stop it. I have amendments that would stop the bill, too, but I’m not going to bring them up.”

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, dismissed Hatch’s argument that gay-inclusion would kill immigration reform, pointing to the successful passage of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization with LGBT provisions.

“The notion that something as simple as allowing married same-sex couples to sponsor their partner would kill the bill is preposterous,” Angelo said.  “LGBT provisions didn’t stop VAWA from passing in the Senate — and the House — and it won’t kill the CIR bill, either.”

The committee began consideration of amendments to the immigration reform on Thursday. Consideration of additional amendments is set to continue Tuesday, Thursday, May 20 and every day that follows until there’s a final vote on the bill.

Besides Schumer, Immigration Equality says the rest of the Democrats on the panel are “yes” votes. Durbin, another Democrat on the committee and member of “Gang of Eight,” isn’t in the same boat as Schumer because the Illinois senator has articulated support for the amendments. Max Gleischman, a Durbin spokesperson, confirmed for the Blade that his boss supports the measures.

During an interview with CNN on Sunday, Durbin commented on the prospects of including bi-national gay couples as part of immigration reform.

“I happen to believe that it’s consistent with the position we should have marriage equality, and therefore, recognize marriages between people from the same gender,” Durbin said. “Now, this is a hot issue. It’s a contentious issue. If we can find a way through this to protect that basic right of an individual and still pass immigration reform, that’s what I want to achieve.”

For a time, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the Democrats on the committee, was seen as questionable because she expressed concerns over granting affidavits to same-sex couples as written under UAFA. Her office didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment on the amendments, but Ralls maintained his organization has received commitments that she’d vote for the Leahy amendment restricted to married bi-national same-sex couples.

Leahy also continues to promote the idea that protections for gay couples should be included as part of comprehensive immigration reform as more states continue to legalize same-sex marriage. He articulated his views in an interview with Politico published on Thursday.

“On this particular issue, you know, at some point we’re going to have to face it, and we have to decide when is the best time to face it,” Leahy said. “You can’t go into a state like mine or — it will be now 11 or 12 states and the District of Columbia — where same-sex marriage is legal, and say to this couple, ‘OK, we can help you with the immigration matter.’ Turn to another couple equally legally married and say, ‘Oh, we have to discriminate against you.’”

At the same time, debate is ensuing within the religious community about support for immigration reform if it includes language for bi-national couples.

According to the Associated Press, leaders from conservative religious groups who previously expressed support for immigration said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday they would withdraw support if language for gay couples is included. Among the groups on the call were the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals

“We’re extremely hopeful that this bill will remain an immigration bill and not get tangled up with the issue of gay rights,” Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, was quoted as saying. “But if it did, if it did, the Southern Baptist Convention would not be able to support the bill.”

But a letter dated May, 6 2013 to Leahy from a coalition of other religious groups calls for the inclusion of gay couples in immigration reform. Among the 15 signers are leaders from the Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church and the Unitarian Church.

“More than 2,500 faith leaders from all fifty states, including 57 bishops of the Episcopal, Methodist, and Lutheran churches are part of the Faith Coalition for the Uniting American Families Act,” the letter states. “No reform of that system can truly be called comprehensive unless it includes all immigrant families, including the families of same-sex spouses and partners.”

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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