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Could UAFA pass as a floor amendment to immigration reform?

Chuck Schumer, Charles Schumer, New York, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has raised the possibility of UAFA as a floor amendment. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In the wake of a Senate committee decision to exclude bi-national gay couples from immigration reform, LGBT rights supporters are turning to a possible floor amendment as a way to salvage inclusion in the bill.

LGBT groups working on the issue — Immigration Equality and the Human Rights Campaign — told the Washington Blade they’ve asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to offer the language as an amendment when it comes before the full Senate as expected this month.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said discussions are underway to push for a floor amendment along the lines of UAFA, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States, but a lot depends on the case before the Supreme Court challenging the Defense of Marriage Act.

“I can tell you if the immigration bill is moving toward a vote before we have a Supreme Court DOMA ruling — or after we have a bad Supreme Court ruling — a floor option is something we very much want to look at,” Ralls said. “We’re kind of in two competing timelines here; it’s not entirely clear how quickly the immigration bill will move forward for a vote, and we don’t know exactly when we’re going to have a Supreme Court ruling.”

Bombarded by accusations on his Facebook page that he betrayed the LGBT community by asking the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold off on the amendment, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in response raised the possibility of a floor amendment.

“I’ve been a lead sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act for a number of years and I believe and desire that its principles should be included in the immigration bill,” Schumer writes. “There will be an opportunity to add it to the bill on the Senate floor.”

But none of the groups involved say they’ve received commitments from Leahy that he’ll introduce the amendment on the Senate floor, nor has the Vermont senator publicly committed to offering the amendment.

Jessica Brady, a Senate Judiciary Committee spokesperson, said she doesn’t have anything to offer in terms of public commitment for offering UAFA as an amendment on the floor.

“I’m going to have to refer you back to Sen. Leahy’s comments in the markup, when he said he would continue to fight to take discrimination out of the law,” Brady said. “He didn’t specify if he would offer an amendment on the floor.”

Moreover, finding the 60 votes on the Senate floor to end a filibuster on UAFA is significantly more difficult than obtaining the simple majority needed for passage in committee.

Assuming all 54 members of the Democratic caucus support UAFA — and the votes from Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mark Landrieu (D-La.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who don’t support marriage equality, are in question — five Republicans would need to vote “yes” in addition to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the only GOP co-sponsor. The Democrats are now short one vote following the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Ralls said finding the necessary 60 votes to end a filibuster on the Senate floor will be “tough,” but he expects Schumer and other Democrats in committee who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for amendments out of fear of losing Republican support for immigration reform to find support for a measure for bi-national couples on the floor.

“I think all of the Democrats on that committee who told Sen. Leahy not to offer the amendment last week owe to our families and they owe it to Sen. Leahy to find the path to 60 votes if we need them to get us there,” Ralls said.

The White House has talked about the possibility of UAFA as a floor amendment to immigration reform once it reaches the Senate floor. Under questioning from the Washington Blade on Friday, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he thinks “there is an amendment process on the Senate floor where this could be considered, so I don’t want to predict the outcome at this point.”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Schumer said he expects the immigration bill to see action soon on the Senate floor — meaning the question of whether UAFA will be introduced as a floor amendment will have to be answered soon.

“We’re going to put immigration on the floor starting on June 10. I predict it will pass the Senate by July 4,” Schumer said. “We’re hoping to get 70 votes — up to 70 votes, which means a lot of Republicans.”

LGBT groups continue to back reform

Even without the provision for gay couples, LGBT groups are continuing to say they support the measure because it contains other provisions that would directly impact the LGBT community and provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 267,000 LGBT people who are among the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Among the provisions that directly impact the LGBT community is repeal of the one-year deadline on filing for asylum — a deadline that many LGBT asylum seekers in the United States miss because they’re unaware of it or lack the financial resource to meet it — and improvements in immigration detention facilities to benefit transgender detainees.

In a conference call with reporters, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, GLAAD and GetEQUAL highlighted these aspects of immigration reform to bolster its support among LGBT people.

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, was among those who said the provisions related to asylum and detentions facilities are important to the work done by LGBT advocates.

“We also recognized early that the bill will impact many more LGBT people than simply would be impacted by UAFA,” Kendell said. “We have seen some of the most horrific stories of damage done, discrimination, harassment, terrorizing [involving] LGBT asylum seekers and detention facilities in this country.”

Ralls acknowledged that Immigration Equality continues to support the immigration bill despite discontent over the lack of UAFA-like language in the legislation.

“We’re very disappointed that the bill does not currently include binational families, but as the LGBT organization that speaks to more immigrants than every other group in our community combined, we support the bill, as it includes important provisions that would help many of those individuals, many of whom are our clients, too,” Ralls said.

Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, also said his organization still supports immigration reform even without language for bi-national gay couples.

“We are committed to immigration reform,” Sainz said. “Undocumented individuals that happen to be LGBT will immeasurably benefit from immigration reform.”

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House has its own “Gang of Eight” working on its version of reform, although the legislation that group of lawmakers produces, as Ralls noted, isn’t expected to include a provision for bi-national gay couples.

“Our strategy all along has been we want to be in the Senate bill, that if a Senate and House bill go to conference, we can rely on our champions in both chambers to make sure that we stay in the bill that reaches the president’s desk,” Ralls said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), sponsor of UAFA in the House, would likely be the one to amend the bill to include the provision, but given the conservative nature of the House, amending the bill in either committee or the floor to include UAFA seems unlikely.

Ilan Kayatsky, a Nadler spokesperson, said plans for what will happen with the House bill after it’s unveiled by the House “Gang of Eight” are unclear.

“We still don’t know what form or process the House CIR bill will take, so it’s premature to sort out the UAFA specifics just now,” Kayatsky said.

What happens if the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA?

The best hope for bi-national couples may be a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on pending litigation challenging DOMA, the federal law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The Obama administration has consistently cited this law, and only this law, as the reason why married bi-national gay couples are ineligible for a visa through the marriage-based green card application process.

Moreover, UAFA would no longer be operable for these legally married couples if DOMA were struck down. Even though UAFA provides a path to residency for “permanent partners,” it would no longer provide relief for couples in these states because the law, under Section 2, subsection D, only applies to those who are ”unable to contract with that other individual a marriage cognizable under this Act.”

But the situation is murkier for bi-national couples who live in states without marriage equality. Will someone living in Texas be able to sponsor someone as a “permanent partner” or will they have to travel to a marriage equality state, wed, and then apply for a green card through a marriage-based green card application process? What if they cannot leave the state out of financial constraints?

Ralls said the way Immigration Equality interprets UAFA, the law would still have some use in non-marriage equality states even if DOMA is struck down.

“In some ways, it would make it simpler for couples in non-married states, they would not have to travel, they would be able to apply from their home state for their green card,” Ralls said. “So, in some ways, it’s broader and it applies to couples in all 50 states without forcing them to travel.”

Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, said he can’t say at this point under what circumstances a bi-national same-sex couple in a non-marriage equality state would be eligible to apply for a visa if UAFA were law and DOMA were struck down.

“I don’t believe there is a definition of that term in the bill and the focus has been on creating relief from DOMA, not the range of reasons that might make it impossible to travel to a state where same-sex couples can marry,” Davidson said. “Indeed, if the bill were to pass, a court might interpret ‘unable to contract’ to reference legal inability not practical inability in light of one’s personal circumstances.”

But even with the possibility of a Supreme Court ruling against DOMA that would allow at least married bi-national couples to stay in the United States, Ralls said it’s incumbent upon Congress to act.

“We think DOMA is unconstitutional, and we hope the court agrees,” Ralls said. “But when it comes to advocating for real families who are impacted by this, we’re not willing to put all of our eggs in a basket that hasn’t yet been delivered. I do not want to have to tell our couples, the day after a bad DOMA ruling, ‘I wish we had fought harder in Congress.’”

03
Jun
2013

Iraq war vet who fought ‘Don’t Ask’ dies in car accident

Darren Manzella, gay news, Washington Blade

Darren Manzella, shown here in 2008, came out as gay while serving in the Army under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He died at age 36. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser).

A gay veteran of the Iraq war who fought against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has died in a car accident in Pittsford, N.Y.

Darren Manzella, who came out as gay in 2007 while serving in the Army during an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” died on Thursday at the scene of the crash. He had just turned 36 on Aug. 8.

Steve Ralls, the former spokesperson for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network who handled his public relations at the time, said openly gay troops currently serving around the world today are able to do so, in part, because of Darren’s sacrifice.

“Darren knew he would be discharged for speaking out, but he volunteered to do it because he wanted the men and women who followed him to be able to serve openly without fear of discharge or discrimination,” Ralls said. “That’s the kind of guy, and the kind of soldier, Darren was. I know how deeply proud his family was of him, and that pride was shared by all of us who had the privilege of working with him, too.”

Manzella served as an Army medic in Kuwait and Iraq and earned a Combat Medical Badge for treating his fellow soldiers. His “60 Minutes” interview was filmed, in secret, in Kuwait City while he was still a Staff Sergeant in the Army.

He was the first openly gay service member on active duty to speak to the press from a war zone. Months after coming out publicly, Manzella was given an honorable discharge under the military’s gay ban in 2008.

Since August 2011, Manzella had been working as a health science specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Rochester. According to his Facebook page, he very recently married his spouse, Javier Lapeira, on July 5.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, who also faced discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for being gay, knew Manzella and said he was an inspiration.

“Darren Manzella wasn’t just a hero and an inspiration to me personally, he was an American hero and a civil rights leader,” Fehrenbach said. “When my ordeal started in May 2008, I saw Darren’s interview on 60 minutes. He inspired me to speak out and tell my story. He had such a great impact in the repeal of DADT.”

Fehrenbach, who was ultimately able to stay in the Air Force before he retired on his own volition, said his friend will leave a lasting legacy.

“The only blessing is that Darren died as a soldier and a husband,” Fehrenbach said. “He was able to fulfill his dreams to serve his country openly and marry the man he loved. I will miss him dearly, and I will never forget him. He made the world a better place and he made me better and stronger for knowing him.”

The Rochester-based Democrat and Chronicle quotes Michael Manzella, Darren’s father, as identifying his son as a person who was killed in the accident Thursday night.

Michael Manzella reportedly said Darren was struck by a sport utility vehicle while pushing his car that was already damaged in an accident that happened immediately beforehand on Interstate 490. Michael Manzella is quoted as saying as of Friday afternoon, his calls to police so far haven’t been returned.

In the same report, Cpl. John Helfer of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office reportedly confirmed an accident involving two collisions took place on Thursday that caused someone’s death. However, Helfer reportedly wouldn’t name the person.

Helfer reportedly said the incident began as a two-car crash on the westbound lanes of the highway in Pittsford, when one car sideswiped another car about 8:30 p.m. The man in the struck car stopped in the middle lane of I-490, got out and started pushing it from behind, Helfer was quoted as saying.

But a sport utility vehicle rear-ended the car, pinning the man between the two vehicles. The man was pronounced dead at the scene, Helfer reportedly said. The other two involved drivers were reportedly taken to Strong Memorial Hospital with minor injuries.

Lapeira told the Blade the police came to his apartment to notify him that they had found Manzella’s car and his body, which remained at the Medical Examiner in Rochester until Saturday.

“Needless to say, Darren was a hero in every sense of the word,” Lapeira said. ”Even at the moment of his death, his first instinct was to push his car off the freeway to avoid any injuries to others.”

After coming out on “60 Minutes,” Manzella was discharged months later under the military’s gay ban known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” President Obama signed legislation to repeal that law in December 2010 and lifted the ban the following year.

In January 2008, the Washington Blade published an article — the first byline in the paper for this reporter — on Manzella’s appearance on “60 Minutes” during a period of uncertainty on whether he’d be expelled from the military. After he was subsequently kicked out of the Army under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Blade followed up in July 2008 with an article on his experience.

At the time, the former soldier told the Blade during his discharge proceedings he had the opportunity to request a board to rebut statements that he made to the press. But Manzella waved this option.

“I said I wouldn’t take back anything,” he said. “It would defeat the purpose of why I participated in the ["60 Minutes"] segment. It would defeat the purpose of working with SLDN.”

The former soldier told the Blade experience of being out in the military, making media appearances and ultimately being discharged from service has made him “much more aware” of his identity.

“My belief that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ needs to be repealed has magnified significantly because I’m personally affected by it now,” he said.

Darren Manzella, gay news, Washington Blade

Darren Manzella in 2008. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

30
Aug
2013

Dems seeking to delay gay-inclusive immigration reform?

Chuck Schumer, Charles Schumer, New York, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is saying nothing in response to a Politico report that one advocate calls “alarming.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Key players in Senate talks on immigration reform are staying mum following a media report that Democrats are working to delay a vote on making the package gay-inclusive — prompting one advocate to call for the White House to intervene.

Late Thursday, Politico reported that Democrats are asking the White House to tell Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to withhold amendments for bi-national same-sex couples until the larger measure reaches the Senate floor — where passage will likely be more difficult.

“They’re increasingly uneasy about risking Republican support but reluctant to tell gay rights advocates that an amendment allowing American citizens to seek green cards for their same-sex foreign partners may not get a vote in the Judiciary Committee,” Politico reported.

Concern over the amendments follows remarks from Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — as well as comments from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to the Washington Blade — that including the pro-gay language would kill immigration reform.

LGBT advocates involved in talks told the Washington Blade they’re unaware of any such conversations between the White House and Democrats. Spokespersons for the Human Rights Campaign and Immigration Equality said the Politico report was the first they’ve heard about any such discussion.

Steve Ralls, an Immigration Equality spokesperson, said the White House should go on the record in response to the reporting — which he called “alarming” — because the LGBT community “has a right to know which particular senators” are “scheming to throw gay families under the bus.”

“The chairman has stuck his neck out for gay families, but I fear Schumer is working to avoid confronting the issue because of Republicans’ threats and intimidation,” Ralls said. “If the president is being asked to help slow down or stop a vote, the White House owes our families an assurance that he is refusing to do so.”

The White House didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the Politico report.

Leahy has filed amendments before the committee along the lines of the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States.

One measure mirrors UAFA, the other is restricted to married bi-national couples. According to LGBT advocates, Leahy has given assurances that he’ll bring up the amendments as the committee considers family unification issues for immigration reform.

One group, Immigration Equality, says all Democrats on the committee have given assurances they’d support at least one of the measures — with the exception of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). That’s just one vote short of a majority vote in committee.

The only Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who offered responses to the Blade on Friday were Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Speaking directly with Blade, Blumenthal said he supports the Leahy measures and is unaware of any talks to delay voting on them.

“I’ve heard nothing about it,” Blumenthal said. “I haven’t spoken with the White House about it; I haven’t heard of any Democrats talking to the White House.”

Ian Koski, a Coons spokesperson, said, “I’m afraid I haven’t heard anything about that other than press reports.”

Alexandra Fetissoff, a Franken spokesperson, was similarly unaware of the discussions detailed in Politico as she gave assurances on the Minnesota senator’s vote.

“We’re unaware of any conversation and Sen. Franken is definitely not making the request,” Fetissoff said. “He plans to support Sen. Leahy’s provision when it comes up for a vote.

But key players in the immigration talks didn’t push back against the Politico report to say that the assertions are untrue.

Schumer, a member of the “Gang of Eight” that produced the base bill, is the lone Democrat on the panel who hasn’t committed to voting for the amendments in the committee. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The offices of Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who are also members of the “Gang of Eight,” also didn’t respond.

In the Politico article, Durbin is quoting as saying Obama is “working behind the scenes,” but declined to give additional details. The article doesn’t quote him as saying whether the White House is involved positively or negatively in working toward a gay-inclusive bill.

The only Democratic member of the “Gang of Eight” who responded was Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Tricia Enright, a Menendez spokesperson, said she’s “not aware” of requests made to the White House to ask Leahy to hold off on the amendments.

Additionally, the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) didn’t respond to a request for comment. According to Immigration Equality, her vote also was in question, but she’s given assurances she’d support the more restrictive amendment offered by Leahy limited to married bi-national same-sex couples.

As for what Leahy has been told, a Senate aide referred to the Politico article. The Vermont senator is quoted as saying he spoke with Obama regarding immigration reform on Wednesday, but the issue regarding gay couples didn’t come up.

“I am the most senior member of the Senate, I’m an experienced chairman. He’s happy I’m handling immigration,” Leahy reportedly said. “He hasn’t suggested whether I should or shouldn’t do it because he knows I’ll make up my own mind.”

Family unification issues for immigration reform, under which UAFA would fall, are scheduled to come up before the committee next week starting on Monday.

Ralls said he expects the amendments to come up on Tuesday, but cautioned they may not come up at all if Leahy feels he doesn’t have sufficient support in committee.

“We are concerned, given the very weak support of Democrats and ongoing threats from Republicans, that the amendments may not even be given an up or down vote in committee, despite Leahy’s leadership and passion for the issue,” Ralls said.

Blumenthal said the last he heard was that Leahy intended to offer the amendments in committee, but plans may have changed.

“The last I heard from him, he was going to proceed, but that was last week,” Blumenthal said. “I can’t speak for him. I don’t know what he intends to do, but I understood he was going to offer the amendment.”

Obama addressed the issue during a news conference as part of a visit to Costa Rica earlier this month. The president called including the provisions the “right thing to do,” but left the door open to signing a bill that lacked protections for bi-national gay couples.

“I can also tell you I’m not going to get everything I want in this bill,” Obama added. “Republicans are not going to get everything that they want in this bill.”

18
May
2013

Tensions high as Senate panel considers immigration reform

Advocates are looking to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to amend the immigration bill with UAFA. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Advocates are looking to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to amend the immigration bill with UAFA. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Tensions were high as observers waited to see on Tuesday whether Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would introduce amendments before a Senate committee to include bi-national same-sex couples as part of comprehensive immigration reform. The committee is expected to wrap consideration of the measure by 10 p.m. Tuesday. The Washington Blade will update this post as developments warrant.

Leahy is facing pressure to withhold the amendments from Senate Republicans who say their introduction will kill the larger package and, according to recent media reports, from other Senate Democrats as well as the White House.

Both amendments were already filed by Leahy. One mirrors the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States. The other would allow for the approval of marriage-based green card applications for married same-sex couples.

At the start of Tuesday, many advocates were pessimistic about the chances of the amendments passing in the wake of comments from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who said he won’t commit to supporting the amendments. His vote is necessary for unanimous support among Democrats and a majority vote in committee.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said blame will be shared on both sides of the aisle if the committee doesn’t amend the immigration bill to include protections for gay couples.

“If the amendments are not offered for a vote, there will be bipartisan blame: On Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Jeff Flake for making threats and bullying colleagues to abandon our families; and on Senator Schumer, for refusing to stand up, in the face of that bullying, for his own constituents who desperately need him to cast his vote in their favor,” Ralls said.

Lavi Soloway, a gay immigration attorney and founder of The DOMA Project, was anticipating defeat and criticized Schumer as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who only supports the DOMA carve-out amendment, for what he said was “betrayal” over not providing full support to the LGBT community.

“This was the moment that required courage and leadership,” Soloway writes. “The most vulnerable members of our community relied on Senator Schumer and Senator Feinstein to stand up for us and end decades of catastrophic and irreparable harm to our families caused by DOMA and our exclusion from U.S. immigration law.”

Leahy hasn’t committed to offering the amendments before the committee, although he has promoted their inclusion in immigration reform. A Senate aide said if they were to come up, they’d likely be the last piece of businesses for the final committee vote on reporting out the legislation to the Senate floor.

Adding to the tension was an Associated Press report saying that the White House had asked Leahy to hold off on introduction of the amendments until the legislation reaches the Senate floor. Passage on the floor would be more difficult than in committee and the amendments are unlikely to succeed there.

After the the daily briefing on Tuesday, the Blade shouted a question to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to verify the accuracy of the report. Carney offered no response.

A Senate Judiciary committee aide also wouldn’t verify the accuracy of the Associated Press article.

“The chairman speaks to the president often but he does not discuss what they speak about in any given week,” the aide said.

The AP report comes of the heels of another report from Politico saying key Democrats on the panel asked the White House to intercede to persuade Leahy to hold off on introducing the amendments. The Vermont Democrat is quoted in the article as saying the issue didn’t come up in his discussion with the White House.

Ralls said the AP report indicates a lack of support and all parties who support LGBT rights should also advocate on behalf of the Leahy amendments.

“There is no pro-LGBT position to take in this debate other than full support for the chairman’s amendments,” Ralls said. “That’s what we expect from the White House, and every senator who has proclaimed their support for the repeal of DOMA and the equal treatment of our families under the law. You can’t say you support equality, and then work to delay or derail it.”

21
May
2013

Gay donor cuts off Dems over immigration bill

Jonathan Lewis, gay news, Washington Blade

Jonathan Lewis (Photo courtesy of Paul Yandura)

Prominent gay Democratic Party donor Jonathan Lewis is pledging to cut off funds to the party over his disappointment that bi-national same-sex couples were excluded from the immigration reform bill.

In a statement provided to the Washington Blade on Tuesday, the Miami-based philanthropist said he’s turning off the tap for Democrats and urging others to do the same over the immigration issue and President Obama’s reluctance to issue an executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination.

“During the immigration reform debate Senate Democrats had the opportunity to reverse some of the harm caused by DOMA and they buckled under pressure, essentially taking LGBT families for granted,” Lewis said. “With the president failing to deliver on his promised federal contractor executive order and with Senate Democrats caving to Republican threats, now is the time to stop investing in Democratic cowardice and stand proud by withholding donations until we see our friends’ actions and deeds align with their rhetoric — I will be withholding my donation and asking all of my friends and family members to do the same until such time.”

Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) withheld from the committee amendments that would allow gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency along the lines of the Uniting American Families Act after Democrats on the committee — Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) — said they couldn’t vote for the measures out of fear of losing Republican support for the larger bill.

Lewis, who provided money to fund LGBT groups such as Freedom to Work and GetEQUAL, provided the maximum amount of $30,800 to the Democratic National Committee and the maximum amount of $2,500 to President Obama’s re-election campaign in the last election cycle. His fortune comes from his family, founders of Progressive Insurance.

Neither the White House nor the DNC responded to a request for comment on Lewis’ statement.

Lewis’ statement to the Blade builds off an op-ed piece he published on the same day in The Huffington Post, titled “No More Excuses: Mr. President,” in which he calls on Obama to issue the executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in LGBT workplace discrimination as a way to make amends for the absence of UAFA in immigration reform.

The op-ed and the statement to the Blade come on the eve of the annual LGBT DNC gala held in New York City. This year, first lady Michelle Obama and gay NBA player Jason Collins are set to headline the event while “Love Song” singer Sara Bareilles will perform as the musical guest. It remains to be seen whether Lewis’ statements will have any impact on the funds that the DNC raises at the event.

But the anger at Senate Democrats isn’t universal among LGBT donors. Bruce Bastian, a gay Utah-based philanthropist known for his support of the Human Rights Campaign, told the Blade via email he blames Republicans for the exclusion of UAFA from immigration reform and said his donations to Democrats will continue to flow.

“Like most if not all LGBT Americans, I am very disappointed that Republicans continue to define our relationships as ‘less’ than straight couples and have derailed the Uniting American Families amendment,” Bastian said. “But this is not the time to pull back in support of any kind. We are moving in the right direction. Those who do not want us to have full equality will continue to try to stop our momentum. I will continue to fight them with my time, effort and money.”

Still, one LGBT advocacy group that worked to include UAFA is saying Lewis’ sentiment is shared by others who’ve supported the Democratic Party.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said he’s heard from Democratic donors that they’re “rethinking the political contributions and priorities” following the exclusion of the amendment for gay couples from immigration reform, although he wasn’t immediately able to provide names.

“I can assure you that in private conversations, significant Democratic donors have had with our executive director and with other people working on this said they were very disappointed in what happened last week, and they’re looking at where they invest their donations moving forward,” Ralls said.

Ralls further pointed to the comments on Schumer’s Facebook page expressing anger over his refusal to back UAFA as part of immigration reform — along with warnings not to attend New York City Pride — as evidence this anger is felt not just by donors, but the LGBT community at large.

“There is palpable anger among the LGBT community in social media, in conversations that we’ve had with supporters,” Ralls said. “I do think there will be a political price for senators to pay.”

29
May
2013

Gillibrand leads renewed call to help bi-national couples

Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senate, New York, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is calling on the Obama administration to take action for bi-national same-sex couples (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The junior senator from New York is taking up the lead on a renewed call for administrative action to help bi-national same-sex couples in anticipation of a ruling from the Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act.

In a letter sent out Thursday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other U.S. senators call on the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to take action to ensure that married bi-national same-sex couples won’t face separation before justices make a final determination in case of Windsor v. United States before the end of June.

Senators ask Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to hold the marriage-based green card petitions for bi-national same-sex couples in abeyance until the court makes its ruling on DOMA. Additionally, they ask Attorney General Eric Holder to institute a moratorium on orders of removal issued by immigration courts to married foreign nationals who would otherwise be able to adjust their status if not for DOMA.

“By taking these interim steps, vulnerable families affected by DOMA can remain together until the Supreme Court issues its decision,” the senators wrote. “Preserving family unity is a fundamental American value and is the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration law.”

Unlike straight Americans, gay Americans are unable to sponsor a foreign same-sex spouse for residency in the United States because DOMA prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. As a result, these couples could be faced with separation — or even deportation if the foreign nationals in these relationships lose their immigration status. Stand alone legislation that would address this issue is known as the Uniting American Families Act.

Besides Gillibrand, other signers of the letter are Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). A total of 13 names are on the request.

Senators have made repeated requests of the Obama administration on the issue — in addition to the letters from House lawmakers and one most recently from 54 LGBT and immigrant advocacy groups. It’s the third such letter signed by a group of senators — not counting one written by Blumenthal and on behalf a lesbian couple in his state and another written by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on behalf of another couple in another situation.

Several senators who’ve previously signed these letters have not penned their name to the most current one. Absent is Kerry — who had previously been leading these efforts for the letters, but has recently been nominated as secretary of state — as well as Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Gillibrand’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on why these names were absent.

Other absent names are former Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who signed before his retirement from the Senate early this year, and the late Sen. Daniel Inouye.

But each time in response to these letters, the Obama administration has said it’ll continue enforcing DOMA as long as it remains on the books.

Things don’t seem any different this time around. The various agencies to whom the letter is addressed seemed disinclined to take immediate action as a result of the letter. Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokesperson, had no immediate comment and said the department would review the letter.

Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesperson, reiterated the Obama administration continues to continue to enforce the law as long as it remains on the books.

“Pursuant to the Attorney General’s guidance, the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect and the Department of Homeland Security will continue to enforce it unless and until Congress repeals it, or there a final judicial determination that it is unconstitutional,” he said.

The Obama administration has already taken steps to address this issue. For example, in October, the Department of Homeland Security issued guidance stipulating immigration officers should consider “long-term, same-sex partners” as families when considering whether to exercise prosecutorial discretion in the potential deportation of an undocumented immigrant.

But marriage-based green card applications are still being denied.

Last week, the Obama administration denied for two couples in different parts of the country. The two green card denials of which the Washington Blade learned on Friday were for Kelly Costello and Fabiola Morales, a lesbian couple from Potomac, Md., and Adi and Tzila Levy of New York.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said the letter “underscores the necessity of administrative action” as observers await the final determination on the constitutionality of DOMA and action on comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

“The White House has pledged its assurance that LGBT binational couples will not be torn apart, and abeyance – which would give couples legal presence and protection in the country until a permanent option for residency is available – would be a natural extension of that pledge,” Ralls said. “Given those permanent solutions which are on the horizon, our hope is that President Obama will concur with the senators’ letter and grant abeyance for the next six months or so, until all families have access to the green cards they deserve.”

——————

The full text of the senators’ letter is below:

Dear Mr. Attorney General and Madam Secretary:

We continue to applaud the President for his decision not to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (‘DOMA’) in federal court. We also applaud the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for including “long-term same-sex partners” under the Administration’s policy that suspends deportations of some immigrants who pose no security risk. These developments are steps in the right direction, but DOMA is still the law of the land and continues to discriminate against a class of Americans.

Following the 2012 election, there are now nine states and the District of Columbia recognizing same-sex marriage with several other states granting similar rights. However with DOMA as law, we are creating a tier of second-class families in these States. DOMA prevents same-sex immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens from successfully applying for permanent resident visas. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Windsor v. U.S. and will determine the constitutionality of DOMA in the next term; by June we will know whether or not applications for lawful permanent residence for lesbian and gay spouses will ultimately be approvable.

Given the historic nature of Windsor v. U.S., we urge DHS to hold marriage-based immigration petitions in abeyance until the Supreme Court issues its ruling on same-sex marriage. Holding these cases in abeyance for a few months will prevent hardship to LGBT immigrant families. We also call upon the Department of Justice to institute a moratorium on orders of removal issued by the immigration courts to married foreign nationals who would be otherwise eligible to adjust their status to lawful permanent resident but for DOMA. By taking these interim steps, vulnerable families affected by DOMA can remain together until the Supreme Court issues its decision.

Preserving family unity is a fundamental American value and is the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration law. Thank you for your decision not to defend the constitutionality of a law that hurts so many families and for your consideration of this request.

17
Jan
2013

Biden: ‘Wait and see’ on gay couples in immigration reform

Vice President Joe Biden said the Obama administration will “wait and see” what the Senate comes up with on immigration reform before determining whether to insist a provision for same-sex couples be included in the package, according to a report from Bloomberg News.

Vice President Joseph Biden (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Vice President Joseph Biden (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“We’re going to wait and see what the Senate bill and the bipartisan group presents, and we’ll make our judgments,” Biden reportedly said during an interview on Capitol Hill. “We made it clear what we think should be done, and we’ll see.”

Biden’s remarks suggest the Obama administration is closely monitoring whether language will be included in immigration reform to ensure bi-national same-sex couples can remain together in the United States — a provision Obama included in his proposal for a change in U.S. immigration law.

An official in Biden’s office clarified for the Washington Blade that Biden “was simply stating that he wanted to see specific legislation” and the White House looks forward to working with Congress as it develops a bill.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said he interpreted Biden’s remarks to mean if language isn’t included in the initial legislation, the administration will try to find other opportunities to include gay couples in the final package.

“I take the vice president’s remarks to mean that, if Congress crafts a bill without LGBT families in it, the administration will look at opportunities, as a bill moves forward in the legislative process, to work with our allies on putting our families in,” Ralls said.

Ralls added the administration has been clear it wants bi-national same-sex couples included as part of immigration reform and expects Congress to take an active approach on the issue.

“President Obama spent considerable political capital to see ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repealed, and he has been an integral part of ensuring [the Defense of Marriage Act's] defeat,” Ralls said. “Every recent action he has taken, and the plan he has outlined, indicates to me that we should expect the same for immigration reform.”

Obama included a provision for bi-national same-sex couples as part of the plan that he unveiled for immigration reform. The Senate framework doesn’t include such language. Although Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said the issue hasn’t come up yet in discussions, Republicans have been dismissive of the idea.

During a forum hosted by Buzzfeed on Feb. 5, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said when asked about including language for bi-national same-sex couples in immigration reform, ”If that issue becomes a central issue in the debate, it’s just going to make it harder to get it done.”

11
Feb
2013

Napolitano: DOMA prohibits action to help bi-national couples

United States Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, gay news, Washington Blade

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said DOMA precludes placing marriage-based green cards in abeyance for gay couples (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano continues to say the Obama administration is unable to place on hold marriage-based green card applications for bi-national same-sex couples as long as the Defense of Marriage Act remains on the books.

When asked by the Washington Blade on Monday during a White House news conference, Napolitano asserted DHS can’t take such action, which could protect bi-national gay couples from separation stop the deportation process in some extreme cases.

“The legal advice we have received is that we can’t put them in abeyance because DOMA remains the law,” Napolitano said. “We’d like to see that law overturned. In practical terms, however, most of those cases fall within very, very low priority in terms of what we’ve done over the last years, which is to build priorities into immigration enforcement, so we’re not seeing, in practicality, those deportations occur.”

In 2009, DHS took such action for the widows of U.S. citizens when Napolitano ordered U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services to grant deferred action widows who are foreign nationals and suspend adjudication of their visa petitions and adjustment applications.

Asked why her department couldn’t take similar action for bi-national same-sex couples, Napolitano replied, “Well, because of DOMA.”

LGBT advocates — most recently Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other senators in a letter to the Obama administration — have been calling on the Obama administration to place on hold the marriage-based green card applications for bi-national couples, especially because a final determination from the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of DOMA seems imminent. But each time, DHS has responded that it’ll continue to enforce DOMA as long as it remains on the books.

The Obama administration has taken steps to address this issue. For example, in October, the Department of Homeland Security issued guidance stipulating immigration officers should consider “long-term, same-sex partners” as families when considering whether to exercise prosecutorial discretion in the potential deportation of an undocumented immigrant.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said though his organization appreciates the efforts DHS has undertaken to protect bi-national gay couples, “there is clear legal precedent” to place their marriage-based green card applications in abeyance.

“By not doing so, the Administration has instead forced some couples to fall out of legal status, or to consider exile abroad,” Ralls added. “While not actively pursuing the partners of LGBT Americans for deportation is a welcome step forward, giving those couples the legal status abeyance would confer is a critical part of ensuring they have the legal stability they need to protect their families.”

The Board of Immigration Appeals — an agency under the Justice Department — has also taken action for certain married bi-national same-sex couples seeking relief apparently in anticipation of a ruling from the Supreme Court against DOMA. The agency has issued remands in at least 10 cases involving denied card petitions filed on behalf of same-sex couples, according to The DOMA Project.

Lavi Soloway, an immigration attorney and co-founder of the DOMA Project, denied the legal reasoning offered by Napolitano, saying DOMA prevents DHS from approving marriage-based green card applications, but says nothing about holding them in abeyance, nor would such a move “violate the spirit or letter of DOMA.”

“Is it regrettable that the administration continues to cite the questionable ‘legal advice’ that DOMA prohibits any remedies to would protect married binational gay and lesbian couples,” Soloway said. “Furthermore, this interpretation of DOMA is contradicted by their own action in the deportation context, where after two years of telling us that they could not issue a moratorium to stop ‘DOMA deportations’ for that very reason, the administration finally issued guidance in October 2012 to prevent deportations of the same-sex partners and spouses of American citizens who would be otherwise eligible for green cards if not for DOMA.”

Soloway maintained the Obama administration can do three things to help bi-national same-sex couples: 1) place their marriage-based green card applications in abeyance; 2) extend humanitarian parole to all foreign partners who are stuck abroad and end the exile of gay Americans caused by DOMA; and 3) offer deferred action to the foreign partners of gay Americans who are currently in the U.S. without lawful status.

“The Obama administration’s lack of movement on these interim remedies cannot be blamed on DOMA, and is inconsistent with President’s recent statements championing equality for lesbian and gay couples,” Soloway concluded.

26
Feb
2013

LGBT advocates hope to amend immigration bill

Advocates are looking to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to amend the immigration bill with UAFA

Advocates are looking to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to amend the immigration bill with UAFA.

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.”

 

17
Apr
2013

LGBT groups push back against threats to gay-inclusive immigration bill

Dick Durbin, Chuck Schumer, Marco Rubio, John McCain, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade

(From left) Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have expressed varying positions on LGBT-inclsuive immigration reform (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

LGBT groups are urging supporters of the Uniting American Families Act to stand firm in the face of threats from Senate Republicans that inclusion of gay couples in immigration reform would derail the larger legislation.

A number of LGBT advocates made statements this week calling for inclusion of bi-national same-sex couples amid expectations that the vote on including them as part of immigration reform could happen as early as next week. These advocates are seeking the addition of language along the lines of UAFA, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, issued a statement late Wednesday saying Congress must pass an immigration bill that includes gay couples and the notion that their addition would block the legislation from passing is an “offensive ruse.”

“This bluster is nothing more than a political maneuver designed to divide the pro-reform coalition and at the same time appease a small but vocal group of social conservatives that will do anything to stop progress for lesbian and gay couples,” Griffin said. “The LGBT community will not stand for Congress placing the blame of their own dysfunction on our shoulders.”

Another joint statement earlier in the day from a quintet of LGBT organizations — the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, United We Dream and Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project — expressed a similar sentiment.

“We do not believe that our friends in the evangelical faith community or conservative Republicans would allow the entire immigration reform bill to fail simply because it affords 28,500 same-sex couples equal immigration rights,” the organizations state. “This take-it-or-leave-it stance with regard to same-sex bi-national couples is not helpful when we all share the same goal of passing comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship.”

Both of these statements emphasize that LGBT groups support passage of comprehensive immigration reform and take note of an estimate from the Williams Institute that 267,000 of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are LGBT.

The moment of truth for whether UAFA will come up as an amendment when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers comprehensive immigration reform will come soon. The deadline for committee members to submit amendments to the bill is Tuesday at 5 p.m.; the members will decide which to offer during committee mark ups.

LGBT advocates say they’ve received assurances that UAFA will come before the committee — likely from Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who sponsors the standalone bill. A committee aide wouldn’t say on Thursday whether a decision has been made on whether the amendment will be introduced, but added Leahy believes equality in family unification needs to be part of the reform package.

During a committee hearing last week, Leahy said the first day for voting on amendments will be next week on May 9. Thereafter, the committee will continue to consider amendments on May 14, May 16, May 20 and every day that follows to complete consideration and have a final vote on the bill. Chances are the amendment will come up on one of these later days.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said on Tuesday he still expects a UAFA-like amendment to come up during the committee markup and remains confident  the measure will succeed.

“Our expectation is still that we have the votes,” Ralls said. “I think, to be totally honest, at the end of the day, this is going to come down to a question of whether our friends on the committee buckle to the bullying of our opposition on the committee. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that’s not the case we’re counseling on all the Democrats to stand strong, but, as I predicted before, the opposition is going to be loud and is going to put a lot of pressure on our friends.”

But Senate Republicans are warning that inclusion of this provision would dismantle the bipartisan coalition and prevent the larger vehicle from finding the necessary 60 votes to pass on the Senate floor.

An article earlier this week in Politico titled, “Gay rights push threatens immigration deal,” quotes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as saying inclusion of UAFA will “virtually guarantee” the legislation won’t pass.

“This issue is a difficult enough issue as it is,” Rubio is quoted as saying. “I respect everyone’s views on it. But ultimately, if that issue is injected into this bill, the bill will fail and the coalition that helped put it together will fall apart.”

A similar article in the New York Times quotes Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another member of the “Gang of Eight,” as saying he believes LGBT-inclusion in immigration reform would lead to failure for the immigration package.

“There’s a reason this language wasn’t included in the Gang of Eight’s bill: It’s a deal-breaker for most Republicans,” Flake is quoted as saying. “Finding consensus on immigration legislation is tough enough without opening the bill up to social issues.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is the only Democrat on the panel who doesn’t co-sponsor UAFA or made a public statement in support of it — even though she’s known as an LGBT advocate and has been the lead sponsor of legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

Ralls said another Democrat on the committee that’s of concern is Sen. Chuck Schumer, another member of the “Gang of Eight” — even though the New York Democrat is among the co-sponsors of UAFA because of his desire to see the overall immigration bill passed.

“The bill is Sen. Schumer’s baby; he’s part of the ‘Gang of Eight,’” Ralls said. “We know that he wants to see it passed. I know that probably, to be honest, Sen. Schumer is getting some of the biggest pressure from Republican colleagues on the committee because of his role in crafting the bill. Now, he has told families in New York that have met with him that he really wants to get this done. I don’t doubt that, and I hope that that’s the message he’s delivering to Republicans on the committee as well.”

Schumer’s office didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment for this article. An article earlier this month from Gay City News quotes the senator as saying, “I believe strongly in UAFA and I’m going to do everything I can to get it into the bill,” but also says he declined to speculate on how that would be accomplished.

Still, at least seven of the 10 Democrats on the committee have offered strong statements in favor of including UAFA as part of immigration reform, such as Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who said during a committee hearing that supporters of the bill will do “everything we can” to make sure UAFA is included in the bill.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the lone GOP co-sponsor of UAFA in the Senate, is pledging to take an active role in determining whether UAFA should be included in the bill. Kevin Kelley, a Collins spokesperson, told the Blade she’ll work with Leahy to determine “the best way to bring their bill before the Senate for consideration.”

“Sen. Collins’ Maine offices have been contacted by same-sex couples who have found themselves forced to choose between the person they love and the country they love due to our current immigration laws,” Kelley said. “More than two dozen countries already recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes. The Uniting American Families Act would simply update our nation’s immigration laws to treat bi-national, same-sex permanent partners fairly.”

With questions over whether gay couples will be included in immigration reform, attention may turn to President Obama and whether he’ll push to make sure a provision for them is included. The White House has said Obama’s vision for immigration reform includes gay couples, but at the same time Obama has said he doesn’t want to be “heavy-handed” in telling Congress what the legislation should entail.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during a press gaggle abroad Air Force on Thursday that Obama has been in contact with the major players on comprehensive immigration reform, but doesn’t have a read on whether LGBT inclusion was among the topics that were discussed.

“The legislation crafted by the ‘Gang of Eight’ broadly reflects the principles that the president has laid out, but it is not word for word in keeping with all of what he would do if he were to write it himself,” Carney added. “And we have said that we support that provision, but we also think it’s very important to recognize that the overall bill here accomplishes what the president believes needs to be accomplished and is in keeping with his principles.”

Should the amendment pass as part of the bill in committee, the next hurdle for UAFA will be making sure that it remains in the bill when it comes to the full Senate floor. But Immigration Equality’s Ralls anticipated that the 60-vote threshold to remove the provision wouldn’t be met and was confident it would remain intact.

The more daunting issue is the Republican-controlled House. That chamber hasn’t been amenable to pro-LGBT legislation, although it did pass an LGBT-inclusive bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act at the start of this Congress. Moreover, how the House will approach immigration reform remains in question. House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has said he plans to handle immigration reform as a series of bills as opposed to a larger package at one time.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who sponsors UAFA in the House, said in a statement to the Blade on Thursday he’s talking with Senate colleagues about including UAFA as part of immigration reform, but the process in the House is still in an early phase.

“Inclusion in the Senate, or in the conference report that ultimately reconciles the Senate and House bills, may be our best chance for passage,” Nadler said. “It’s too early to speculate about the House process, as there is no bill, nor clarity from the Republican Leadership on its intentions. I have spoken directly with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and others about UAFA, and I am gathering new cosponsors every day. I can assure you that I continue to work publicly and behind the scenes to ensure that the LGBT community is a part of immigration reform. We cannot solve one of our most pressing social problems – immigration – by leaving out a large and vital segment of our society.”

02
May
2013