The Senate Judiciary Committee is marking up the massive bill that leaders in both parties agree presents the best opportunity to reform immigration policy in decades. The bill contains many provisions sought by progressive groups, but lacks protections for LGBT families, specifically binational same-sex couples whose relationships are not recognized by the government.
While endorsing key provisions in the bill drafted by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” LGBT civil rights groups continue to urge the adoption of amendments that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their families.
There are an estimated one million LGBT adult immigrants, about two-thirds of whom are documented and one-third undocumented. An estimated 32,300 LGBT binational couples live in the United States.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, filed one amendment on May 7 that would allow U.S. citizens to seek permanent resident visas, known as green cards, for same-sex foreign partners and another amendment that would apply to U.S. citizens with same-sex foreign spouses.
“For immigration reform to be truly comprehensive, it must include protections for all families,” Leahy said in a news release. “We must end the discrimination that gay and lesbian families face in our immigration law.”
But the amendments were not among the many considered and either rejected or approved during the first markup session on May 9.
And, as of press time, Leahy had not said whether he would bring up the amendments in committee or offer them when the bill reaches the floor, possibly next month.
That may be because of threats from GOP conservatives, including a coalition of Christian right leaders who spoke out against an inclusive bill the day before the markup began.
“We’re extremely hopeful that this bill will remain an immigration bill and not get tangled up with the issue of gay rights,” said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention during a news conference call on May 8. “But if it did, if it did, the Southern Baptist Convention would not be able to support the bill.”
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, called LGBT protections “a divisive distraction that must not derail immigration reform.”
Several prominent Republicans, among them Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, have endorsed an LGBT-inclusive bill, but many others in the party – most significantly the Republicans in the Gang of Eight – have said including LGBT protections would kill the bill.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., recently told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, “This immigration bill is difficult enough as it is. If you inject something like this in the bill, it will die. The coalition behind it will fall apart.”
He added, “This is not the issue to engage this in. You will threaten the entire product.”
This has Democrats concerned for the fate of a mammoth reform bill that would strengthen border security, create new programs to allow tens of thousands of workers into the United States legally, require all employers to verify workers’ legal status, and create a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants now here without legal documents.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said worries over the issue are costing him sleep. “This one is something I worry about all the time. I’m a good sleeper but I wake up in the morning thinking of these things, sometimes early in the morning,” said Schumer, one of the Democrats in the Gang of Eight and another member of the Judiciary Committee.
Schumer supports LGBT protections in immigration reform but fears there may be no passage if the bill is amended to include the LGBT protections.
Such concerns led some in the blogosphere and pundits on cable news channels to suggest that LGBT civil rights advocates back off on the issue.
But advocates maintain that, with a majority of Americans supporting the rights of same-sex couples and their families, there’s no reason an inclusive bill should fail – except that some lawmakers are homophobic.
In a statement released on May 7, Human Rights Campaign said, “The four Republican members of the Gang of Eight have threatened to derail the immigration bill if gay couples are included in it, suggesting that protecting this group, currently left out of our broken immigration system, is somehow different than the other important fixes contemplated. It’s not.
“If they end up doing that, they should just own it and call it what it is: homophobia.”
Polls show that about 53-58 percent of voters, including 52 percent of Republicans under the age of 50, support marriage equality. Seventy-three percent of Americans, including 66 percent of Republicans, support banning workplace discrimination against LGBT people.
“There is a jarring disconnect between the American public and these senators when it comes to issues of LGBT equality,” HRC said, referring to the GOP members of the Gang of Eight. “It’s pretty dated to consider LGBT equality as a controversial, hot-button issue like these senators are portraying it to be. In fact, a strong and diverse majority of Americans support equality. These senators are towing a tired line that no longer represents mainstream opinion, and they’re throwing same-sex couples under the bus in the process.”
The immigration legislation, introduced on April 17, is S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act.