LGBT advocates hope to amend immigration bill
By Chris Johnson on April 17, 2013
The immigration reform proposal advanced by the “Gang of Eight” in the Senate is now public and lacks protections for bi-national same-sex couples, but plans are already underway to include the Uniting American Families Act at a later point during the legislative process.
On Tuesday, members of the bipartisan group working on comprehensive immigration reform unveiled a 19-page outline of the legislation that lays out components of the bill, including enhanced border security and a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
The outline doesn’t mention the Uniting American Families Act, legislation that would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States. LGBT rights advocates, speaking to the Blade on condition of anonymity, said staffers for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the “Gang of Eight,” informed them earlier this week the provision wouldn’t be included, which is consistent with earlier reporting from the Washington Blade.
Attention is now focused on Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the sponsor of UAFA, to see whether he’ll introduce the legislation when the committee reviews the “Gang of Eight” bill over the course of a process that’s expected to last weeks.
A Senate aide said Leahy still needs to review the final “Gang of Eight” legislation before announcing plans, but LGBT rights advocates say they’ve received assurances he’ll introduce UAFA as a committee amendment. Moreover, during a hearing on comprehensive immigration reform, Leahy expressed a commitment to including UAFA as part of comprehensive reform.
The amendment would almost assuredly pass if introduced in committee. The only two Democrats who aren’t co-sponsors on the committee are Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — and they’re strong LGBT advocates in the Senate.
Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said his organization has received assurances that UAFA will be amended in committee and all 10 Democratic members will vote in favor of it.
“They expect an amendment to be offered and they expect all their Democratic colleagues to vote in favor of that amendment,” Ralls said.
According to Ralls, Durbin had a phone call with constituents in Illinois earlier this week to talk about the immigration reform bill, and while the senator noted UAFA won’t be in the base bill, he gave assurances he and Schumer were expecting the opportunity to vote on the amendment in committee.
But the conservative makeup of the Republican members of the committee makes it unlikely UAFA will find bipartisan support. Members include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who expressed disapproval over including UAFA as part of the bill. The only GOP co-sponsor of UAFA is Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and she’s not a member of the committee.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said on the day the immigration bill is offered his organization will issue an action alert to members and supporters who live in states represented by a Judiciary Committee member asking them to call their senators to urge them to vote for UAFA.
It remains to be seen whether Republicans can find a way to disrupt the amendment process in committee so that UAFA would ultimately not be included.
Ralls said Immigration Equality is speaking to senators from both sides of the aisle to encourage both Democrats and Republicans to vote for the bill and will bring in couples from across the country next week to Capitol Hill to make the case.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Ralls said. “There will certainly be loud and vocal opposition from some on the committee. We expect that. We’re not taking the votes for granted until the votes happen, but I can tell you based on our conversations with senators on the committee — and even more importantly, the conversations that senators have had with their constituents about this issue — we’re feeling pretty good that we have the votes to be added in committee.”
Even if the Senate ultimately passes a comprehensive bill that includes UAFA, whether the Republican-controlled House follows suit remains to be seen. According to The Huffington Post, the House may not even pass a comprehensive bill because House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is considering breaking up the legislation and passing it in several installments.
LGBT rights advocates are pleased with other parts of the “Gang of Eight” bill. Ralls noted the outline includes an expedited pathway to citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants who would be eligible under the DREAM Act, many of whom identify as LGBT, and said he believes the bill will include a repeal of the one-year filing deadline for asylum speakers.
“That’s really critical for a lot of our clients,” Ralls said. “LGBT asylum seekers often do not know when they arrive in the U.S. that they have only one year to pursue asylum, and our legal team hears from many asylum seekers every year. You have really strong cases except they don’t meet they’re filing deadline, and that makes their case really tough.”