Immigration Advocates Warn Against ‘Watering Down’ Reform

Heather Morgan criticized use of her marriage to Maria del Mar Verdugo being used as a political bargaining chip. | GAY CITY NEWS

Heather Morgan criticized use of her marriage to Maria del Mar Verdugo being used as a political bargaining chip. | GAY CITY NEWS

In response to a January 28 memorandum from eight US senators of both parties who are taking the lead on immigration reform, a number of local and national advocacy groups held a Manhattan press conference to voice fears about the risk of “watering down” what they described as the push for “real reform.”

“While we applaud the eight senators for their hard work, we are not going to support just any bill,” said Shirley Aldebol, of 32BJ SEIU, a union representing building services workers that hosted the February 20 event.

Advocates from Latino, Asian-American, and LGBT groups voiced a variety of concerns about specifics they did not see addressed to their satisfaction in the memorandum from the so-called Gang of Eight. In particular, they are opposed making relief for undocumented immigrants contingent on first bolstering border protection; they are demanding that backlogs that can keep families separated for decades be addressed; and they want family unification provisions of immigration law expanded from benefiting citizens to helping permanent residents keep their families together, as well.

Immigration Equality joins Latino, Asian-American groups urging “real” change on Schumer, his Senate colleagues

For Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, which advocates for LGBT and HIV-affected immigrants, there is another critical priority — incorporating language classifying the same-sex permanent partners and spouses of American citizens as family members in a way that allows them a path to citizenship on par with that of different-sex spouses.

The group estimates there are 36,000 binational same-sex couples living in the US.

The principle Tiven raised is embodied in the Uniting American Families Act first introduced years ago by West Side Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler. Though Nadler, with the support of allies on Capitol Hill, including the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, told Gay City News he has been assured by leading House immigration advocates that UAFA will be part of any comprehensive bill, it is not spelled out specifically in the Gang of Eight memo. The day after release of the memo, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the Gang, warned that incorporating it into a Senate bill, expected to be drawn up by late March, would kill reform efforts.

Tiven took clear aim at the January 28 memorandum and its authors for failing to address same-sex partners.

“Those who are pretending to be our friends and those who clearly are not are trying to scare us that the borders are not secure when they are and that putting gay and lesbian families in the legislation will weaken the bill, which is not true,” she said. “Don’t let people scare you into a bad deal. Don’t let legislators blame others for their cowardice.”

After the press conference, Tiven expressed concern that the fanfare about bipartisan compromise at the time of the Senate memo’s release could militate against adding provisions like UAFA to the bill as it is written in coming weeks. At this point, she believes the best shot for incorporating Nadler’s measure is in the legislation’s first draft, because the Gang of Eight could be motivated to resist amendments in the Judiciary Committee or on the Senate floor.

Such a non-amendment pledge, she said, “is not uncommon and not unheard of. Some would argue that having no amendments is the very purpose of a bipartisan approach. This is a reasonable fear.”

Asked whether she believed that New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, one of the Gang of Eight, or any of his seven colleagues, was pressing for a mutual pledge to resist amendments, Tiven said, “We have no specific information one way or the other.” But, she added, “Schumer has not allayed our concerns. He could just add UAFA and do that.”

On several occasions since the Senate memorandum has been released, Schumer’s office has told Gay City News he hopes to see UAFA in the final immigration measure adopted by Congress, a goal President Barack Obama endorsed in his own immigration proposal issued a day after the Gang of Eight went public.

Schumer spokesman Max Young told Gay City News, “Senator Schumer is not pushing for an agreement to oppose amendments in the Judiciary Committee.”

Tiven expressed satisfaction that her group had broad coalition support not only from other LGBT groups in New York and nationwide but from labor, business, religious, and other organizations, as well. She noted extensive advocacy efforts Immigration Equality has been able to make at the White House, in Schumer’s office, and elsewhere on Capitol Hill.

But the moderator of the February 20 press conference, Chung-Wha Hong, who heads the New York Immigration Coalition, aggressively pressed Schumer to make himself more available to what she characterized as “local” advocates. After saying, “The Gang of Eight needs to go back and do their homework,” she added, “Schumer must meet with the local coalition.” Saying the New York senator had been meeting with advocates on the national level, Hong told Gay City News, “He has to remember that he represents New York and is a national leader. We are his biggest asset. If he wants our help, he needs to respond to the efforts of his constituents.”

Schumer’s office pushed back hard against any narrative that he has been unresponsive back home.

Young said, “These claims are simply not based in reality. Senator Schumer not only just met two weeks ago with Chung-Wha Hong, the New York Immigration Coalition’s executive director, last week we informed them that we were looking forward to meeting with the group and offered a complete briefing on the issue. In addition, Senator Schumer over the last weeks has met with scores of the individual members that make up the group.”

Young provided Gay City News with a list of several dozen New York organizations that Schumer had met or teleconferenced with in recent weeks, as well as more than half a dozen LGBT-focused organizations he also been in personal touch with — including Immigration Equality, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Latino Commission on AIDS.

One reform advocate who did not speak at last week’s press conference but was there, in comments to Gay City News helped put a personal face on the same-sex immigration issue. In 2011, Heather Morgan, a New Jersey-born marketing director for a non-profit organization, married Maria del Mar Verdugo, a marketing executive for a Spanish newspaper who has been in the US on a work visa for the past three years. The women, who live in West Harlem, would like to start a family but cannot do so unless Verdugo can be assured of staying in the US and being able to work to supplement the family’s income. They are one of five plaintiff couples in Immigration Equality’s lawsuit against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies their marriage federal government recognition.

“We live every day with the uncertainty that tomorrow she will lose her job and I would have no legal recourse to sponsor her,” Morgan said. “The most disheartening part is that New York has come so far. Politicians we sent to Washington have a clear mandate from the citizens of New York about our right to marry, but are using us as bargaining chips.”

In the first several years after UAFA’s initial introduction, its supporters took pains to emphasize that the measure does not aim to undermine DOMA, but the 1996 law is precisely the problem hanging over Morgan and Verdugo’s heads. The couple has two hopes of overcoming that hurdle, both of which reach a critical crossroads in March — one in the Senate and the other in the Supreme Court.