Leadership on Immigration Reform

President Barack Obama, on January 29, did what a bipartisan group of US senators failed to do the day before.

He included equality for same-sex couples in the immigration reform framework he released. In a 2,200-word-plus “fact sheet” released by the White House in tandem with a major address the president delivered in Las Vegas, the section titled “Keeping Families Together” states that Obama’s proposal “treats same-sex families as families by giving US citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner.”

On January 28, a memorandum from the eight senators, including New York’s Chuck Schumer, mentions families several times –– in emphasizing the need to “strengthen” them and not “force [them] to live apart” –– but there is no word of ending the disparate treatment of same-sex binational couples as compared to married different-sex couples. Under current law, including the Defense of Marriage Act, even those gay and lesbian couples who legally marry in one of the 10 jurisdictions in the US where it is allowed cannot win permanent residency for the immigrant spouse.

The Senate memorandum was a critical moment in the unfolding immigration debate on Capitol Hill, signaling a bipartisan commitment –– that included Republicans such as Arizona’s John McCain and Marco Rubio of Florida –– in finally tackling a critical if thorny challenge involving an estimated 11.5 million undocumented residents of the US.

With Democrats in control of the Senate, unlike the House, it is unfortunate that Schumer and his fellow Democrats in the immigration working group –– New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, his party’s Senate point man on the issue, Illinois’ Dick Durban, and Colorado’s Michael Bennet –– did not hang tough for the important principle of LGBT equality in hammering out their bipartisan framework.

Given the Republicans’ abysmal performance with Latino voters this past fall, their party desperately needs to show willingness on the immigration issue. The moment for Democrats to press their advantage was now –– but these senators squandered that. The effort to incorporate relief for same-sex couples can now be portrayed as an add-on.

McCain has already publicly described the issue as a “red flag.” Lindsey Graham, another Republican in the immigration working group, warned that changes in how same-sex partners are treated would kill the effort at comprehensive reform, saying, “Why don't we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out,” according to the Huffington Post. And Republican John Boehner’s office, responding to the administration’s fact sheet, said, “We hope the president is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate.”

Asked to explain the omission of same-sex couples from the Senate framework, a Schumer spokesperson, in an email message, wrote, “These are broad principles and a bipartisan breakthrough on the way to comprehensive immigration reform, but they are not detailed legislation. Senator Schumer is a long-time and committed supporter of UAFA and will work to see it included in the emerging legislation.”

UAFA, the Uniting American Families Act, is Manhattan Congressman Jerry Nadler’s stand-alone legislation to end discrimination against same-sex couples in immigration. Last fall, Nadler told Gay City News he was confident of his “commitment” from leaders of immigration reform efforts that they would make sure UAFA found its way into any comprehensive bill. Principles announced on November 28 by the Hispanic Congressional Caucus affirmed that commitment. Why Menendez, as the Senate Democrats’ leader on the issue, did not make that point a bottom line is unknown.

After often being faulted for lacking the initiative on LGBT issues demonstrated by progressive Democrats in Congress, the president is now out front –– where he must remain if we are to win this fight. The route to success, however, can only go through the Democratic Senate.

Schumer, Menendez, Durbin, and Bennet have their work cut out for them –– and we’ll be watching.