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Immigration Reform Conundrum


When thousands of marchers descend on the National Mall this Sunday to rally support for immigration reform, hundreds of them will be representing the LGBT population.

"Immigration Equality has registered 200 marchers and has also learned that an additional 100 LGBT advocates will be coming to D.C. by bus to join us at the march," Steve Ralls, director of communications for the organization, said Tuesday. "We're now expecting a contingent of more than 300, standing for LGBT immigrants and families on the National Mall."

Immigration activists hope to impress upon Congress that they expect to see action taken on immigration reform this year, even as President Barack Obama declined just last week to commit to a time line.

In advance of the March For America, Democratic senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina are expected to unveil a bipartisan immigration bill this week that will serve as the lead piece of legislation on the matter.

For LGBT people, the immigration debate holds two concerns.

First, an estimated 12 million undocumented individuals live in the United States, roughly 600,000 of whom are LGBT (assuming that about 5% of the population is queer). Those individuals would benefit if an immigration bill laid out a path to citizenship, regardless of whether it included a provision for same-sex partners.

Second, an estimated 70,000 lesbian and gay couples in the country include one partner who is an American citizen and one partner who is an immigrant, according to the Williams Institute, a California think tank. While the immigrant partners in some of these couples have visas and green cards, about 36,000 of those couples include one partner who does not have a current option for obtaining residency -- they may have temporary tourist visas or temporary professional visas or may be undocumented. Those couples would benefit specifically from the inclusion of the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow U.S. citizens and green card holders to sponsor their same-sex partners for residency.

But whether UAFA will make it into the Schumer-Graham (pictured) bill is an open question, as are a multitude of other considerations.

Schumer has a sizable LGBT constituency in New York and has traditionally maintained a strong record on LGBT rights. He also stated his full support for UAFA at last year's hearing on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"For those who question the morality of permitting same-sex partners to obtain immigration benefits, I believe we should value the sanctity of preserving the family structure in whatever form it may take and in providing compassion for all Americans who yearn to live with their family," Schumer said last June. "This act incorporates the same principles that I believe should govern comprehensive immigration reform."

But Schumer is also a political pragmatist and must produce a bill that can garner GOP support as well as the approval of a diverse coalition of groups that back reform but disagree on the content of the bill. Schumer's office did not return phone calls for this article.

Just how contentious the inclusion of LGBT families is remains to be seen.

Democratic representative Jared Polis of Colorado has been front and center in the House's debate over immigration and immediately ticks off a list of considerations that are already provoking heated debate -- providing a normalization process for the undocumented population, including verification of people through biometrics, augmenting border security.

"Those issues are all more controversial than including same-sex families," said Polis, who has nonetheless signed on as a cosponsor of the House's comprehensive bill, H.R. 4321, which does not include LGBT families.

Polis stresses that the effort must attract some GOP votes, but he still doesn't see UAFA as a deal breaker. "Many of the Republicans who would be likely to support immigration reform are also Republicans that have a moderate record on LGBT issues," he said.

He also notes a plus side to incorporating LGBT binational couples. "UAFA absolutely attracts support from lawmakers who have significant gay and lesbian populations," Polis said.

Indeed, Democratic representative Mike Honda of California has credited the inclusion of LGBT families with attracting extra support for his immigration bill, the Reuniting Families Act. When he first introduced the legislation in the last Congress, he started with just five cosponsors; but when Honda reintroduced the bill in 2009 with a provision for same-sex couples, he racked up 57 original cosponsors.

Honda did, however, get push-back from one group: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Migration, wrote a letter to Honda stating, "Including UAFA in the Reuniting Families Act would erode the institution of marriage and family by according marriage-like immigration benefits to same-sex relationships."

Ralls of Immigration Equality admits that assembling a comprehensive immigration bill is "complicated" but adds that LGBT inclusion has much more support than opposition.

"The only group that has publicly and consistently opposed our inclusion is the Conference of Catholic Bishops," he said.

Still, the bishops are influential in many circles, and some immigrant groups have been careful not to cross them on the matter of same-sex partners.

One of the main coalitions for the immigration movement, Reform Immigration for America (RIFA), has declined to endorse including UAFA in the bill, even though some of its member groups have done so individually. The Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) at the Center for Community Change, for instance, endorsed UAFA earlier this month and called on Congress to fold UAFA into the comprehensive bill.

But of the 13 member groups who comprise RIFA's governing body, only six have voiced support for UAFA (the full list is included at the end of this article).

During a meeting with LGBT bloggers and journalists last month, Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum and a key player in RIFA, said he hoped "to get past the idea that the only way LGBT people will be helped is through UAFA."

If LGBT families are not originally included in the Schumer-Graham bill, Noorani suggested that Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chief sponsor of UAFA, would be the ideal person to offer the measure as an amendment in the Judiciary Committee he chairs.

But the notion that LGBT immigrants and their supporters would be expected to support a reform package that does not include same-sex partners angered many activists in the room.

"I was somewhere between mad and upset at the way they just threw LGBT immigrants under the bus," said Prerna Lal, an attendee of the meeting who is both undocumented and a member of the LGBT community. "They just pretended that the grassroots immigration reform movement doesn't care about our LGBT brothers and sisters."

Lal, who also cofounded the site, called choosing between identities "a false choice" and said, "We need to stop pretending that immigrant families don't include LGBT families."

She believes that if the Conference of Catholic Bishops walked away from the bargaining table, they might not actively support the legislation, but they also wouldn't actively oppose it. Instead, the immigration bill would gain support from more LGBT groups and their allies as well as faith groups that are pro-LGBT inclusion. She points out that in the House, UAFA has more cosponsors at 121 members than the comprehensive immigration bill, H.R. 4321, does at 94. Ultimately, she said, the immigration movement would end up with a different alliance of groups but not necessarily a weaker one.

Lal added that she does not support a comprehensive immigration bill that excludes LGBT binational couples. "I think it's painful really to see part of the community left behind," she said.

But Democratic representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts cautions LGBT advocates who threaten to reject immigration reform if it does not include a provision for same-sex couples.

"This notion of, it's all we care about, if we don't get it, we're going to kill the whole bill -- I think that's a terrible mistake," Frank said. "The Hispanic community has been very supportive of us on a lot of issues. It would be a big mistake if we said we were going to veto a bill that's very important to them because we can't get what we wanted."

Below is the full RIFA management team list. The organizations that have officially endorsed UAFA according to Immigration Equality include an (*):


* America's Voice

* Asian American Justice Center (*)

* Center for American Progress

* Center for Community Change (*)

* Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (*)

* Leadership Conference for Civil Rights

* National Council of La Raza (*)

* National Immigration Forum (*)

* Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste

* Service Employees International Union (*)

* United Food and Commercial Workers

* U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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