Immigration reform for binational gay couples caught in cross-fire

by on September 13, 2010  •  In Congress, Immigration

The Washington Post sees little chance of reforming immigration laws to benefit same-sex couples:

About 24,000 gay and lesbian couples in the United States include at least one foreign partner, according to an analysis of census data by researcher Gary Gates at UCLA's Williams Institute. Though five states and D.C. issue marriage licenses to gay couples, a large number of the 24,000 so-called binational couples in long-term relationships live in states that do not allow or recognize gay marriage.

The demand by these couples to gain the same immigration rights as heterosexuals is supported by key members of Congress, but is undermining the fractious coalition of groups needed to push through an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws. Including equal treatment for gay partners of U.S. citizens, key advocates say, threatens to doom the already fragile hopes for change.

"It introduces a new controversial element to the issue which will divide the faith community and further jeopardize chances for a fair and bipartisan compromise," said Kevin Appleby of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which last year said the inclusion of gay couples in a House bill aimed at reuniting families made it "impossible" for the group to support the measure. "Immigration is hard enough without adding same-sex marriage to the mix."

The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a 16-million-strong group of evangelical Latinos that could play a key political role in an immigration overhaul, is similarly opposed to including provisions for gay and lesbian families. The president of the organization, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, said that including such a measure would prove to be the "death knell" for comprehensive change.

Gay and lesbian foreigners around the country … said the opposition of powerful Catholic and Latino groups was ironic because those groups often saw an immigration overhaul as a civil rights issue – and were quick to blame xenophobia and racism for anti-immigrant sentiment – while simultaneously arguing against equal rights for gays and lesbians…

It is unclear whether an immigration overhaul will take place in the next 12 months. The rise of the "tea party" movement, the popularity of tough new anti-immigration laws in Arizona and other states and the growing likelihood that Republicans will control the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate after the 2010 midterm elections all suggest that an immigration overhaul will be difficult.

At the same time, advocates for such an overhaul say, there are also powerful social and political forces that could move changes forward: Chief among them, the presence of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and the growing political clout of Latinos in states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada. Rodriguez rejected the argument that opposing gay marriage provisions in an immigration overhaul constituted homophobia. Rather, he said, the choice was between excluding gay and lesbian families from an overhaul of immigration laws – or losing out on an overhaul altogether.

The key constituency to changes getting passed are white evangelicals, he added. After years of outreach, Latino evangelicals have formed alliances with white evangelical groups – and those evangelicals are key to getting Republican votes in the House. Including provisions related to gay marriage, Rodriguez said, would prompt white evangelicals to desert the coalition.

"It is not a matter of being anti-anything but being pro-immigration reform," he said. "It is not fair to morph the immigration agenda with the same-sex agenda."

Steve Ralls, director of communications at Immigration Equality, a legal aid and advocacy organization that seeks to include gay and lesbian families in any immigration measure, said he was confident that equal rights would be part of any overhaul. In the Senate, he said, an immigration bill would have to pass through the Judiciary Committee, where Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has been a strong backer of equal gay and lesbian immigration rights.


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