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Washington Blade: Gay Couples Missing from Senate Immigration Plan

by Chris Johnson | The Washington Blade

A blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform made public on Monday by a bipartisan group of senators contains no provision for bi-national same-sex couples, despite the push among LGBT advocates to include such language in immigration reform.

The document, the result of ongoing talks between a ”Gang of Eight” after the start of the 113th Congress, would enable a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. But this path to citizenship would be contingent upon tougher border enforcement measures.

Additionally, young people brought to the country as children illegally — a group that would be eligible for citizenship under the DREAM Act — and seasonal agriculture workers would be given a faster path to legal status.

But the proposal lacks a long-sought provision that would enable gay Americans to sponsor a foreign partner for residency in the United States. While straight Americans can sponsor their foreign spouses for a green card through a marriage-based application, gay Americans are unable to do the same because of the Defense of Marriage Act and because they cannot marry in many places within the country. Standalone legislation that would address the issue is known as the Uniting American Families Act.

Rachel Tiven, executive director of the LGBT group Immigration Equality, said she’s “extremely disappointed” that senators didn’t include UAFA as part of their proposal, but said the final die hasn’t yet been cast.

“Today’s framework is just that: a starting point, but not yet a bill,” Tiven said. “We will work non-stop to make sure our families are part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation when it is introduced. Any immigration bill in Congress must allow LGBT people to sponsor their spouse or permanent partner in the same way opposite-sex couples have long been able to under current immigration law.”

The bipartisan group senators who were involved in the talks on the Democratic side were Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). With exception of Menendez, each of the senators are co-sponsors of UAFA, and Menendez included the language as part of his own version of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Republicans involved in the talks were Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)

The absence of UAFA didn’t come up when senators involved in the talks held a news conference on Capitol Hill to explain their proposal. Also, none of the Democrats involved the talks responded to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the absence of the language. The office of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who’s sponsored UAFA, also withheld comment on whether he’d seek to amend comprehensive immigration reform legislation to include UAFA.

The blueprint was made public the day before President Obama was scheduled to travel to Las Vegas, where he’s expected to unveil his own proposal on what should be included as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. The Blade reported last week that there are signs Obama would include UAFA in his proposal. White House spokesperson Shin Inouye said he won’t preview the proposal, but said the president has “long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love, and he welcomes changes that would help keep families together.”

In a joint statement on Monday, a number of groups reaffirmed the need to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation that includes UAFA, saying “any legislation must include the ability of couples in same-sex relationships to sponsor their spouse or permanent-partner.” These groups are the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Immigration Equality Action Fund, and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

The full statement follows:

“We are fully committed to and deeply understand the need for this nation to adopt a humane and effective comprehensive immigration policy which places a premium value on justice, dignity, respect and opportunity.

Any legislation must include the ability of couples in same-sex relationships to sponsor their spouse or permanent-partner in the same way opposite-sex couples have long been able to under current immigration law.

We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those striving for and dreaming of a nation that embraces all who come here seeking a better life. We look forward to working with Congress, the White House and every community harmed by our broken immigration system to finally achieve the comprehensive reforms we all so desperately need.”

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