A significant point of contention in the immigration reform legislation currently undergoing mark-up in the Senate Judiciary Committee is whether individuals in binational same-sex couples should have the same right to sponsor their partners for citizenship as opposite-sex couples already enjoy. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages and thus extends those couples no immigration benefits. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has been adamant about adding these protections to the bill through amendment versions of his Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), but Republicans like Sens. Marco Rubio (FL) and Lindsey Graham (SC) have made it clear the protections are a deal-breaker for reform.
Committee mark-up is nearing its end this week and Leahy’s amendments have still not been introduced. Sources suggest that President Obama encouraged Leahy not to introduce these amendments in committee, but save them for introduction on the floor of the full Senate. Obama has said publicly he believes that including protections for same-sex couples is the right thing to do, but UAFA would likely face an even bigger hurdle on the Senate floor than it would if included with the bill in committee.
Despite Republicans’ threats to let the inclusion of same-sex families derail the entire bill, several of the major conservative groups that support the bill also back UAFA’s protections. Some, like The DOMA Project’s Lavi Soloway, have called out Senate Democrats on the committee for caving to these threats rather than defend the gay community’s inclusion on principle. United Methodist Church Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño has suggested that any Senator willing to walk away from the bill over the inclusion of LGBT families “should be ashamed of themselves.” In contrast, blogger Bil Browning argues that immigration reform is too important for all LGBT immigrants to worry about specific protections for couples. The legislation does contain some provisions that will especially help LGBT people, including a protection that people cannot be targeted for solitary confinement because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Nevertheless, the absence of UAFA would limit gay, lesbian, and bisexual immigrants to one less path on the roadmap to citizenship. Should the Supreme Court overturn Section 3 of DOMA next month, however, the federal government may be able to recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes.
There are estimated to be at least twenty-four thousand binational same-sex couples in the United States and many will undoubtedly be helped by the bill’s legalization provisions. Countless stories of these families being separated by deportation have permeated the media over the past few years. Republicans are insisting that this should remain the status quo, and it seems they might just have the political leverage to keep it that way.
Sen. Leahy decided not to introduce the UAFA amendments, offering this statement:
LEAHY: I take the Republican sponsors of this important legislation at their word that they will abandon their own efforts if discrimination is removed from our immigration system. So, with a heavy heart, and as a result of my conclusion that Republicans will kill this vital legislation if this anti-discrimination amendment is added, I will withhold calling for a vote on it. But I will continue to fight for equality.
The bill passed out of committee by a 13-5 vote.