LGBT concerns were included this month in a new immigration reform bill introduced to Congress, but they were not part of President Obama’s words in support of that bill and some say the bill is just a mid-term election tool.
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the new bill—the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010—on October 1. His key co-sponsor is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). It is the language of Leahy’s own “Uniting American Families Act” (UAFA) that is included in Menendez’s bill.
Neither Menendez nor President Obama, who supports the Menendez bill, identified the LGBT-related language in their public statements.
In a press release October 1, Menendez notes that his bill addresses “strengthening border security, enhancing worksite enforcement of immigration laws and requiring the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants present in the U.S. to register with the government, pay their taxes, learn English, pay a fine, pass a background check and wait in line for permanent residence.”
The White House issued a statement in support of the bill, quoting President Obama as saying he looks forward to “reviewing it in detail” but noting that the bill would “provide lasting and dedicated resources for our border security, while restoring accountability and responsibility to the broken system.”
Immigration Equality, a group working to improve immigration laws for LGBT families and others, hailed the Menendez bill and its inclusion of Leahy’s UAFA language.
“This new bill includes numerous, positive developments for LGBT immigrants,” said Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, in a press statement. “This legislation will finally end the obstacles so many families—both gay and straight—struggle with every day.”
One particularly difficult gnarl in the current immigration system, notes Immigration Equality, is that there is a disincentive for gay Americans to marry their foreign partners even in states, such as Massachusetts, which allow for same-sex marriages. As the group’s website explains, “any time a non-citizen seeks to enter the U.S. on a temporary visa, he or she must prove to Immigration [authorities] that his or her intent is to return permanently to his or her own country.
“If a non-citizen marries an American and discloses this fact when asked about marital status by an Immigration official,” notes the website, “it may be difficult or impossible to obtain a visa or gain entrance into the U.S. because the Immigration official may conclude that if the non-citizen is married to an American, it is likely that he or she intends to remain in the U.S. permanently. There is, therefore, a danger for foreign nationals in entering into a same sex marriage at this point.”
Immigration Equality also notes that, if an American citizen does marry a non-citizen and then the non-citizen applies for a “green card” to stay in this country legally based on that same-sex marriage, “the application will be denied and [the non-citizen] will be placed in removal proceedings.”
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which also praised the Menendez bill, estimates about 500,000 LGBT people are in this country illegally and stand to benefit from the bill’s passage.
Immigration Equality estimates 36,000 bi-national same-sex couples currently face imminent separation, and about a third of these live in California. About 47 percent of those couples are raising minor children. And about 79 percent do not have a legal option of immigrating as a couple in the non-citizen’s home country.
Leahy’s language, and that in a similar bill introduced to the House by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would amend existing law to allow a citizen to gain citizenship for his or her “permanent partner.” Current law allows for recognition only of a spouse, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents recognition of same-sex spouses.
Both Nadler and Leahy’s bills were introduced in 2009 but have not moved out of committee. A spokesman for Nadler said the Congressman had not yet seen the details of the Menendez bill but is “certainly appreciative” of news that it includes the LGBT language.
A group focused on making immigration more difficult, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called Menendez’s bill “last minute political theater designed to impress special interest voters.” And Senator John Cornyn called it a “political football” that Democrats are trying to “jam through during a lame duck session.”
But, in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union news program Sunday, Menendez rejected Cornyn’s assessment. He said he introduced the bill just last week because “if we’re going to have any opportunity to, for example, consider the possibility of lame duck movement on it, where a lot of senators are retiring and might be willing to look at the issue, you need something to jump off from. If we’re going to go into it in the early part of the next Congress, you need something to have as a foundation.”
Steve Ralls of Immigration Equality said that Menendez, by introducing the bill now, “is ensuring that, when Congress reconvenes, he will have already clearly identified the priorities for reform.”
“There is a growing consensus, on both sides of the political aisle, that Congress should tackle immigration reform early in the next session,” said Ralls. “Senator Menendez’s bill will now be positioned to be the starting point for that debate.”