Schumer, LGBT Critics Agree Senate Floor Immigration Amendment Possible

Advocates for same-sex couple immigration reform, incliuding Carlos Vargas from the DRM Action Coalition, protest outside Senator Chuck Schumer’s Midtown office on May 8. | IMMIGRATION EQUALITY

Advocates for same-sex couple immigration reform, including Carlos Vargas from the DRM Action Coalition, demonstrate outside Senator Chuck Schumer’s Midtown office on May 8. | IMMIGRATION EQUALITY

A week after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance a comprehensive immigration reform bill to the floor without approving an amendment to provide relief to same-sex binational couples, both LGBT rights advocates and a top Democrat who disappointed them vowed to continue the fight during the full Senate’s debate.

“We are going to do everything we can to do to get the amendment passed on the floor,” Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, told Gay City News on May 22, the day after the committee voted to send the bill to the floor.

As the committee was concluding its deliberations, Schumer was among four pro-LGBT Democrats who urged Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, not to formally introduce either of two alternative amendments that would have allowed American citizens to bring their immigrant same-sex partners into the US on the same terms that opposite-sex spouses who are not citizens can gain permanent residency and a green card.

Binational couples’ advocates, failing to win Judiciary majority, must now find 60 votes

Though Schumer termed the obstacles facing gay and lesbian binational couples “rank discrimination,” he said moving either of Leahy’s amendments would have killed the bill.

Referring to the GOP members of the Gang of Eight with whom he negotiated the broad outlines of the immigration package –– which from the start omitted any reference to same-sex couples –– Schumer said that had the committee’s 10 Democrats (all of whom support marriage equality) forced majority approval of one of the pro-LGBT amendments, “the four Republicans would have been off the bill. Period.”

During committee deliberations, Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Al Franken of Minnesota echoed the political calculation that Schumer spelled out.

Leading advocates for same-sex couples hoping to stay together in the US, however, did not share that assessment.

“Despite the leadership of Chairman Leahy, Judiciary Committee Democrats have caved to bullying by their Republican colleagues,” Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of the Immigration Equality Action Fund, which fights for the rights of LGBT immigrants, said in a written statement. “There should be shame on both sides of the political aisle today for lawmakers who worked to deny LGBT immigrant families a vote.”

Tiven’s group charged that the four Republicans in the Gang of Eight –– Arizona’s John McCain, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Jeff Flake of Arizona –– “sought to scapegoat LGBT families, promising to abandon immigration reform entirely if it was amended to include LGBT protections.”

Lavi Soloway, an immigration rights attorney and the founder and former executive director of Immigration Equality, said, “Republicans behaved like brazen schoolyard bullies, showing contempt for compromise and negotiation inherent to the legislative process… Shamefully, for months Democrats stood by while Republicans engaged in a relentless media campaign of anti-gay scapegoating, spreading the myth that LGBT inclusion was tantamount to a so-called ‘poison pill’ that would allegedly doom comprehensive immigration reform.”

When President Barack Obama released his framework for immigration reform on January 29 and included protections for gay and lesbian binational couples, Graham said, “Why don’t we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out,” while McCain called the provision “a red flag.” As the committee wound up its deliberations, Graham warned Leahy that a same-sex couple amendment would derail reform efforts, saying, “You got me on immigration. You don’t have me on marriage.”

Soloway emphasized that Democrats failed to respond forcefully in the face of harsh GOP rhetoric about same-sex couple relief, while Tiven argued the Democrats’ willingness to back down to Republican threats suggested their pro-equality posture is hollow. Both faulted the four Democrats in the Gang of Eight for allowing the original legislative outline for reform to emerge without addressing the needs of binational couples.

When asked whether –– having made the decision to leave same-sex couples out of the original January outline –– it would ever have been possible to add them into the bill during committee deliberations and still hold onto support among the Gang of Eight’s Republicans, Schumer said, “I don’t believe so.”

Soloway said he found that response “disheartening” given the effort many couples in danger of being separated or forced to leave the US put into lobbying the Senate Judiciary Committee in recent months. Advocates estimate that at least 36,000 same-sex couples are affected by their inability to have the immigrant partner stay in the US as if they were an opposite-sex spouse. Advocates have acknowledged that many of the estimated quarter of a million-plus undocumented LGBT immigrants would benefit from the immigration bill as approved in Judiciary, for example by the current one-year deadline for filing asylum claims being removed from statute.

Despite the anger advocates aimed at Judiciary Committee Democrats, they agreed with Schumer’s insistence that the bill could still be amended on the Senate floor.

Saying he thinks there are now up to 56 or 57 votes out of the 60 needed to surmount any filibuster effort on an amendment offering relief to same-sex couples, Schumer explained, “We are already working on the GOP, and I’ve reached out to LGBT groups for help in that effort.” All or nearly all of the 55 Democrats would support such an amendment, he said, predicting that the universe of potential Republican supporters ranged from 10 to 15.

Asked to explain how an amendment that needed only a majority vote in a committee where Democrats hold 10 of 18 seats could survive a cloture vote requiring 60 senators, Schumer said of Republicans supporting the bill approved last week, “They will feel less empowered on the floor to walk away.”

Advocates made clear they intend to keep up the pressure on Schumer and other Democrats, even as they cast an eye toward the Supreme Court, which could remove the obstacles facing binational couples by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act’s (DOMA) ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages in a ruling due in June.

“Senator Schumer owes it to same-sex couples in New York State and he owes it to Senator Leahy,” Steve Ralls, communications director at Immigration Equality, told Gay City News.

Maine Senator Susan Collins, he said, a sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), stand-alone legislation to achieve the goals advocates are now pushing through amendment of the immigration reform bill, could be a leading Republican ally in that effort. Collins played a pivotal role in securing repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in late 2010.

“A floor amendment is very much on the table,” Ralls said.

Soloway, too, is pressing for an amendment to the bill heading to the Senate floor. Should the Supreme Court fail to strike down DOMA during the weeks the Senate debates immigration reform, he said, “You will see much more enthusiasm by supporters of UAFA” in the Senate for amending the immigration bill. The pressure from the LGBT community, he predicted, would be “exponentially greater than the past four months.”

Soloway warned, however, that Senate supporters of LGBT equality cannot afford to wait until they learn the outcome of the Supreme Court’s DOMA deliberations before starting to build support for an amendment. “They let the Republicans control the messaging” during the run-up to the Judiciary Committee deliberations, he said. “That cannot happen on the Senate floor.”

He added, “I want to hear from someone other than just Senator Leahy.”

Even as efforts to amend the immigration bill continue, advocates remain mindful of the hope Senate immigration supporters have of securing up to 70 votes for passage in order to put pressure on the GOP-led House to follow suit. There will be fierce opposition by LGBT rights groups to any repeat of the Judiciary Committee argument that jettisoning the rights of same-sex couples is crucial to the goal of winning immigration reform.