As the health reform debate rages, some members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are making a push for LGBT inclusion in the bill that's waiting in the wings: comprehensive immigration reform.
Twelve members of the CPC's Immigration Task Force sent a letter to Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who is currently drafting the immigration bill, urging him to include policies that address: "Family reunification by alleviating the backlogs for family-based immigration, reducing lengthy waiting periods for legal immigrants to be reunited with their loved ones, and eliminating discrimination in immigration law against same-sex partners and their families."
California representative Michael Honda, a signatory of the letter and lead sponsor of the House's Reuniting Families Act of 2009, an LGBT-inclusive bill to hasten family reunification, said he expects resistance to incorporating binational same-sex couples in broader immigration reform efforts.
"We're trying to lay the groundwork now because of some of the anticipated resistance to see if we can work at it and get them less agitated," Honda said.
The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, for one, sent Honda a letter earlier this year stating that LGBT inclusion in immigration legislation "would erode the institution of marriage and family by according marriage-like immigration benefits to same-sex relationships, a position that is contrary to the very nature of marriage, which predates the church and the state."
Honda admitted that convincing the Catholic group would be no easy task. "If I said that it was going to be a piece of cake, I'd be naive," he said. But he hopes to persuade detractors that keeping LGBT families together is a separate issue from promoting marriage equality.
"Hopefully, we can convince the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that this is not going to harm their position -- it's not expanding marriage rights," he said. The goal, he added, is simply to encourage them to stay neutral or back off their opposition.
Honda originally introduced the Reuniting Families Act -- which specifically addresses keeping families together and reducing wait times for legal sponsorships -- during the 110th Congress in 2008. That legislation, which did not include LGBT families, garnered just three cosponsors.
In 2009, Honda became aware of the dilemma facing an estimated 36,000 LGBT binational couples and took note of the large number of congressional members backing the LGBT-specific Uniting American Families Act, sponsored in the House by Jerrold Nadler of New York (116 cosponsors) and in the Senate by Patrick Leahy of Vermont (22 cosponsors). This year, Honda decided to include same-sex partners in his bill, which now has 74 cosponsors.
Steve Ralls, director of communications for the pro-LGBT group Immigration Equality, said the increase in sponsorship signals the heightened visibility that same-sex couples bring to the debate. "Including LGBT families brings new votes to the table for immigration reform," he said.
Senator Schumer had originally said he would deliver the comprehensive immigration bill by Labor Day, but the timeline presumably got pushed back due to the ongoing health care debate. Schumer's office did not return phone calls for this article.
But Ralls anticipates the immigration bill will be ready sometime this fall. "Senator Schumer is in the process of writing the legislation now and he is actively seeking input from other key players on immigration," said Ralls. "The goal is to have a bill later this year that, according to President Obama, will be ready for a vote in early 2010."
House speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that she prefers to let the Senate take the lead on immigration reform before introducing legislation in the House.
Schumer has released a set a guiding principles for his immigration bill, and among them was general verbiage about family reunification, but no mention of LGBT families specifically.
"Family reunification is a cornerstone value of our immigration system. By dramatically reducing illegal immigration, we can create more room for both family immigration and employment-based immigration," reads principle number 5.
Honda said he had not spoken face-to-face with Senator Schumer about LGBT inclusion but added, "It's probably a good time to sit down with him."
Rep. Jared Polis, who chairs the CPC and also signed on to the letter, said there's "very widespread agreement" among the 80-plus caucus members that LGBT families should be included in overall immigration reform. "We'll just have to continue to fight to keep those families in as we work toward comprehensive immigration reform," Polis said.
The full list of CPC Immigration Task Force members who signed on to the letter includes:
Rep. Neil Abercrombie
Rep. Yvette Clark
Rep. Keith Ellison
Rep. Sam Farr
Rep. Raul Grijalva
Rep. Michael Honda
Rep. Frank Johnson
Rep. Jerrold Nadler
Rep. Jared Polis
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard
Rep. Linda Sanchez
Rep. Lynn Woolsey