PHOENIX – Daniel Rodriguez has been a part of the immigrant rights movement for as long as he can remember. He is gay, 27 and a law school student who hopes to become an immigration attorney one day.
Rodriguez has no doubt that LGBT rights should be part of comprehensive immigration reform. But these days he finds himself in an uncomfortable position.
“This is one of those times in which our community has to sacrifice something to have a win,” said Rodriguez.
In the coming days, the Senate could consider an amendment to the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners to get a green card.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said on Tuesday that he would not introduce the amendment in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and intends to present it on the floor of the Senate instead.
LGBT rights advocates expressed disappointment that the amendment was withheld Tuesday, the last day of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
“We are disappointed that Senator Schumer and his ‘Gang of 8’ colleagues accepted a false choice between LGBT families and immigration reform,” said Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality Action Fund, “when the truth is that including LGBT families from the outset would have strengthened the bill.”
When Leahy announced the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), the controversial amendment was criticized nationally. Some Republicans and Democrats said that adding protections for same-sex couples could kill the immigration reform bill.
But those who identify as both queer and undocumented, or “undocuqueer” as they call themselves, beg to differ.
“I agree that it could hurt immigration reform but I don’t think that it would kill it,” said Rodriguez, who is the chair of Somos America, a broad coalition of pro-immigrant groups in Arizona. “I think it’s important to discuss it.”
Still, Rodriguez says that if he knew that an amendment like this would kill immigration reform and he had the power to stop it, he wouldn’t support it.
“It’s hard to the point that it verges on being hypocritical,” he said. “We have built this idea of the American dream for equality, for us to be included. It’s really difficult being that we’ve done it for so long, that in order to get there it may be that we have to put somebody down.”
Dago Bailon, the Arizona chair of the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project (QUIP), said the chances that the amendment might pass the committee or the Senate floor are slim.
“At the end of the day, I have to ask if I’m willing to sacrifice my family for this issue, at the end of the day if we can have immigration reform without this. We’ll still be OK,” said Bailon, 26.
Both Bailon and Rodriguez, who have work permits under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, have family members who are undocumented.
The argument against UAFA
President Obama has voiced his support for LGBT rights to be included in any comprehensive immigration bill. But Leahy's amendment has been sharply criticized by members of the Gang of Eight, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
“It will virtually guarantee that it won’t pass,” Rubio told Politico in an interview.
Two other Republican members of the group – John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- also made clear their opposition to the amendment, saying it would “kill the bill.”
Democrats like Chuck Schumer found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Schumer had voiced his support for gay rights in the past, but was unwilling to support the amendment, saying he believed that voting for it would cause the Republicans to walk away from the bill.
Opponents of UAFA argue that under the current immigration proposal, all undocumented people regardless of sexual orientation would be able to apply for a provisional status.
But immigration attorney and LGBT advocate Regina Jefferies explained there is a big difference between getting a temporary work permit and having a chance at a green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen. This last option is not open to same-sex couples, even if they are legally married in one of the 12 states that allows same-sex marriage.
“People are not aware of the special impact that being in a same-sex married couple has when one of the members is from another country,” she said. “We have too many U.S. citizens living in exile because they can’t sponsor their spouse.”
Bailon and other advocates believe that an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) could make a difference in allowing same-sex partners a chance at immigration equality like any other couple.
DOMA prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples for various benefits including the right to sponsor a spouse for a green card.
If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns it this year, immigration attorneys argue that it will open the door for same-sex couples who were married in states where same-sex marriage is legal to have a chance to apply for a green card through marriage.
Yet, that could be an administrative nightmare, according to Jefferies.
“It will be an unbalanced treatment of LGBT couples,” she said. “You’ll have situations in which people from one state or another won’t be able to petition for a same-sex spouse but they’ll be able to do it in another place.”
Paying lip service to LGBT rights
Youth advocates for immigration and LGBT rights like Mohammad Abdollahi, a member of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance and founder of DreamActivist.org, say there’s a split within the movement when it comes to Leahy’s amendment.
While some national organizations support the amendment publicly, he said, behind closed doors there’s pushback against it.
“Their support is not real,” he said.
Furthermore, the argument that repealing DOMA would address the needs of gay couples nationally doesn’t work, according to Abdollahi.
Under UAFA, petitioners would have to prove that they are in a committed relationship as “permanent partners.”
“Marriage law is state by state; we still have to fight every single state,” he said. “If it passes in immigration reform, it’s a federal change, regardless of laws on marriage.”
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