Democrats Seek to Bolster Immigration Reform with Gay Partners Provisions
Immigration reform is a hard sell in the current xenophobic political environment, but some Democrats are looking to bolster the chances of a bill aimed at such reform by including provisions that would enable gay and lesbian Americans to sponsor their foreign significant others in a manner comparable to the rights that straight citizens enjoy when they fall in love with people from other countries.
A July 15 Fox News article notes that although straight Americans are given the right to sponsor residency and work permits for their foreign spouses, gays who commit themselves to partners from abroad are faced with much more difficult--often impossible--hurdles. A bill known as the Uniting American Families Act would change that, however, extending similar sponsorship rights to gays and lesbians even though under the anti-gay federal law known as the "Defense of Marriage" Act, gay and lesbian families are shunned when it comes to federal recognition and protections.
Democratic sponsors are trying to see the Uniting American Families Act made part of a legislative package aimed at immigration reform. But Republican lawmakers want no part of it, and some pundits say that inclusion of the gay-friendly bill will alienate Hispanic voters, leaving Democrats in a difficult spot come the midterm elections in November.
"Right now too many same-sex, binational couples face an impossible choice: to live apart, or to break the law to be with partners, their families and children," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois. Gutierrez is on the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
"It tries to redefine traditional marriage," Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah declared of the Uniting American Families Act. "I can’t support that." Added Chaffetz, "If they’re looking to truly reach out to conservatives and Republicans and do something in a bipartisan way, this isn’t it."
But the move to incorporate the Uniting American Families Act is not meant to appeal to Republicans, who do not support the immigration reform package anyway. Rather, the Fox News article said, it is intended to draw support from more Democrats. LGBT equality advocates have taken note. "It is crucial to shore up the support of real genuine progressives who will pick up the phone and call their representatives," Immigration Equality’s Rachel Tiven told Fox News.
Other GLBT equality advocacy groups were quick to call for inclusion of the Uniting American Families Act and the passage of the reform package. The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) issued a July 15 news release hailing "comprehensive immigration reform that truly meets the needs of everyone who calls this country home."
The release went on to say, "The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) is a key component critical to keeping immigrant families together, but NQAPIA recognizes that the broken immigration system affects all immigrants, even if they are not in a couple with an American citizen. The problems are complex and the solutions must be comprehensive in response."
The release continued, "As we stand here in Washington in support of legislation to fix our broken immigration system, we know that what’s required are solutions that work for all our communities. We are undocumented and 3rd generation American citizens. We march in LGBT Pride Parades and Chinatown Lunar New Year Parades. The LGBT community includes us all and we have a common stake in all the issues affecting immigration. We need a path to citizenship and policies that keep our families together. We need an immigration system that protects our rights AND keep us safe--it can and must do both."
Broad-Based Calls for Comprehensive Reform
Immigration Equality also sent out a news release containing the text of a letter signed by a number of social and religious organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the AIDS Action Council, The Episcopal Church, Equality California, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, The Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), People for the American Way, the Stonewall Democrats, and a number of others.
"No reform can truly be called comprehensive unless it includes LGBT immigrant families as well," the letter stated. "We are committed to working, together, for this long overdue and much-needed victory and to honoring our country’s commitment to families and its rich history as a nation of immigrants."
"As the urgency for comprehensive immigration reform increases nationally, and the debate in Washington widens, it is essential to ensure that the LGBT community is included in the reforms we propose and pass," New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler, the lead sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, said in a news release from Immigration Equality.
"In particular, binational LGBT couples must be granted the right to sponsor their permanent partners for immigration, just as other committed and straight married couples can. To that end, I am joining a diverse coalition of legislators, advocates and LGBT groups calling on Congress to include my critical legislation--the Uniting American Families Act--in immigration reform, and to make sure that immigration reform is truly deserving of the term ’comprehensive.’ "
"We are a nation of immigrants and, as a result, our diversity is our greatest strength," openly gay Colorado Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) declared. "Unfortunately, our out-dated immigration system contains laws that discriminate against LGBT families and hinder our economy, our diversity, and our status as a beacon of hope and liberty to people across the world. To be truly comprehensive and achieve real, long-lasting reform, we must provide all domestic partners and married couples the same rights and obligations in any immigration legislation."
"Immigration equality must be a lesson in inclusion, rather than an exercise in division and comprehensive reform must live up to its name by truly including everyone," Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois asserted. "Our march in the direction of progress and justice for families across this country cedes its moral high ground unless we say to say to LGBT families that this is their movement, too."
Just a few months ago, Quigley had expressed doubts that a comprehensive package would indeed become law, telling a Chicago audience last February that, ""While I’m optimistic that comprehensive immigration reform will pass, I’m pessimistic it will include GLBT people."
A July 15 Politico article noted that the Uniting American Families Act is opposed by anti-gay religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Moreover, according to the National Republican Campaign Committee, U.S. Hispanics--while supportive of immigration reform--will not back a bill designed to give parity to gays, because Hispanics are "socially conservative."
But Congressional conservatives are not concerned so much with the provisions for gay and lesbian Americans as with the idea that the reform package will provide "amnesty" to foreign nationals who have taken up residence in the country illegally.
"They’re trying to sweeten the package, but the fact is, it’s got a poison pill inside it," Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray of California said of the legislative package. "They’re asking us to swallow amnesty," Bilbray added. "This is a special package that rewards illegal behavior instead of enforcing the law."
But for gay and lesbian Americans whose families include a significant other from abroad, relief cannot come soon enough. Some couples not only face the pain of enforced separation due to their citizenship status, but also the fear of what might happen if the non-American partner must return to a country dominated by deeply anti-gay social and religious attitudes.
For some gays, whether partnered or single, fleeing homophobic persecution--legal or extralegal, and taking violent forms that include hate crimes, rape, even the risk of murder--is one reason U.S. immigration authorities see as valid for admitting foreigners and allowing them residency and the right to work. But even when an asylum seeker comes from a country known to harbor deep-running social and religious prejudices against GLBTs, it can be difficult to prove to immigration authorities that the threat is real, and that their personal safety and their lives will be in danger if they are forced to return.