Immigration Bill Leaves Out Gays

Move Fuels Friction Among Democrats

Posted December 18, 2009 at 4:52pm

House proponents of comprehensive immigration reform unveiled an ambitious proposal last week with much fanfare, but lost in the buzz was that their bill isn’t entirely comprehensive: They intentionally left out protections for gay and lesbian immigrants.

A bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) dealing with family reunification policies for immigrants was completely rolled into the reform package, except for its provisions allowing same-sex partners of permanent residents to qualify for a visa. The decision behind the little-noted change sparked friction between liberals hoping to kick off debate with an all-inclusive bill and Hispanic leaders more focused on keeping religious leaders on board with the plan.

“All the evangelists, Catholics and churches that are part of this were whacking out— over the gay and lesbian provisions, said a Democratic lawmaker familiar with negotiations on the bill.

The lawmaker said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has led the House effort on comprehensive immigration reform, initially “didn’t want to deal with it. At all.— Then he tried to work out a “stupid— compromise whereby the same-sex partner provisions would be in the bill but they wouldn’t take effect for five or six years, said this Member.

But some liberals argued the idea was “really bad— since Hispanic lawmakers have strongly opposed an effort by the Senate to impose a similar five-year waiting period for immigrants to receive benefits under health care reform, said the lawmaker. A multiyear delay for same-sex partners would likely result in “more criticism for this stupid deal than for leaving it out,— said the House Democrat.

The decision was finally made to offer an amendment to the bill when it comes before the Judiciary Committee in February.

Gutierrez denied that he wanted to keep gay and lesbian language out of his bill. “That’s just not true,— he said, pointing to his long-standing record of supporting the gay community. The real issue, he said, is that same-sex partner matters have not come up in past immigration reform debates and people are still figuring out how to bring the two camps together.

“There has never been a serious, in-depth discussion between the gay and lesbian community and the immigrant community. It’s never existed,— Gutierrez said. “It’s a new conversation, but not one that I’m fearful of. I welcome it. But you can’t expect after nearly two decades of struggle for a new component— to be quickly embraced.

Suggesting that progress is already under way in uniting the two communities, Gutierrez pointed out that most Congressional Hispanic Caucus members are co-sponsors of legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, a top priority for the gay community.

“Remember, if 10 percent of the population is gay and there are 12 million illegal immigrants, I simply state: 1.2 million are going to have their legalization,— Gutierrez added. “The greatest increases in this country in hate are against gays and Latinos and immigrants. We have lots in common.—

The idea for reintroducing the same-sex provision with a committee amendment was hatched by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who downplayed frustrations that it wasn’t initially included in the bill. Polis is one of three openly gay Members.

“Same-sex partners is not an issue in immigration as long as we can repeal DOMA,— said Polis, who has been designated the point person on the issue.

But other gay lawmakers were not happy about the decision to leave the provision out of the immigration overhaul bill and not as optimistic about it being attached to the measure down the road.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said she was “very frustrated— because she “wanted to see a bill that was comprehensive. But we deal with political reality here.— Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who earlier this year pronounced a DOMA repeal “dead— this Congress, predicted it will be “a very, very hard sell— to attach the same-sex provision to the immigration reform bill.

Baldwin last week drafted a letter to President Barack Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders urging their support to make same-sex partner protections part of immigration reform. She called on House colleagues to sign the letter by Friday; prior to that, she had already collected nearly three dozen signatures, including those of Frank, Polis and Gutierrez.

Key House supporters of immigration reform continue to reassure their ranks that the gay rights provision will end up in the bill. Some lawmakers said privately that the Conference of Catholic Bishops, a much-needed ally in the fight for immigration reform, has quietly agreed to support the amendment, even though the group opposed introducing the bill with the provision in it.

“Don’t worry about it. … It will happen through the committee process,— said Honda, chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “It’s about strategy. It will be done.—

The decision to delay adding the same-sex provision not only appeases the Catholic bishops, but it also allows more time for CHC members to warm up to the issue. CHC members “don’t want to say no— to it being included in their No. 1 priority bill, Honda said. “They haven’t said no. They know the issues are out there and they haven’t said no.—

Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), a CHC member, said he is comfortable with the provision but said the caucus hasn’t formally discussed it yet. “It’s been brought up that somebody wanted to add it on. That’s the extent of it,— he said.

CHC founder Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), who recently took over as the lead sponsor of the bill, added that some Hispanic lawmakers may be uneasy with the same-sex provision for cultural reasons, and they may need more time to weigh it. “They feel a little uncomfortable. I think that’s what it is, to be honest with you,— he said.