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Gay rights supporters mourn exclusion of LGBT binational couples from immigration reform

WASHINGTON – Gay rights supporters and their allies expressed bitter disappointment that LGBT binational couples are being excluded from immigration reform.

Bowing to enormous pressure from Republicans who threatened to derail the entire bill, Democrats reluctantly withdrew an amendment that would have added LGBT binational couples to the much-needed overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had repeatedly warned Democrats against added LGBT protections to the immigration reform bill and vowed to pull his support for the proposed bill.

Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that was marking up the bill, pulled his proposed amendment:

"I take the Republican sponsors of this important legislation at their word that they will abandon their own efforts if discrimination is removed from our immigration system. So, with a heavy heart, and as a result of my conclusion that Republicans will kill this vital legislation if this anti-discrimination amendment is added, I will withhold calling for a vote on it. But I will continue to fight for equality."

Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called their decision agonizing and regretted that same-gender couples were excluded.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights, GLAAD, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, United We Dream and Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project, Lambda Legal, Equality Federation and the National Center for Transgender Equality issued a joint statement about the amendment’s withdrawal.

"We remain steadfast in our commitment to passing compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform that will provide a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented men, women and children living in our country, including at least 267,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants.

We are disappointed that certain senators threatened the entire immigration reform bill simply because it affords 28,500 same-sex binational couples equal immigration rights. At the same time, we thank Senator Leahy for standing up for these families. A majority of Americans — 53% — believe that all consenting adults should have the right to get married and that gender should not play a role in who is considered family.

It is unconscionable that lawmakers committed to equality and commonsense, humane immigration policy were forced to make a false choice between protecting the rights of same-sex binational couples and keeping a tenuous coalition together. This take-it-or-leave-it stance with regard to same-sex binational couples is not helpful when we all share the same goal of passing comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship.

Beyond the issue of same-sex binational couples, the bill addresses many issues that will particularly benefit LGBT people, such as eliminating the one-year bar on applying for asylum, providing protections for DREAMers, and improving conditions for people held in detention facilities. These include important protections limiting the use of solitary confinement and explicitly prohibiting the use of this practice based solely on a detainee's sexual orientation or gender identity. We will continue to work to improve the legislation as we fight for its passage because this bill is a historic step forward for all immigrants and the LGBT community.

Our primary goal is to pass a commonsense, compassionate immigration reform bill that puts our nation’s undocumented men, women and children on a pathway to citizenship.

We desperately need to reform our broken immigration system immediately because it dehumanizes, scapegoats and vilifies all immigrants, including LGBT immigrants. We will continue to advocate and support changes to the bill that will create the most accessible pathway to citizenship possible and allow all undocumented immigrants the opportunity to become citizens, and we will continue to ardently oppose draconian amendments that would make immigrants permanent second-class citizens and create undue hardships along a pathway to citizenship.

Every day we fail to reform our system, 1,100 families are torn apart. As a nation, we pride ourselves on keeping families united, and our immigration policies should reflect our commitment to keep families together — all families.

We stand firmly that the following principles must be included if we are to truly have comprehensive immigration reform legislation:

• Provide a pathway to citizenship;
• Ensure that family unity is at the heart of immigration law and policy;
• End unjust detentions and deportations;
• Uphold labor and employment standards, and ensure that the enforcement of immigration law does not undermine labor and employment rights;
• Promote a dignified quality of life for border communities by ensuring border agencies uphold basic civil and human rights protections; and
• Ensure immigrant members of our community are not relegated to second-class status with fewer rights and benefits."

John O’Connor, executive director of Equality California, expressed his disappointment.

“California is home to more LGBT binational couples — 7,100 — than any other state in the nation and today those couples and their families were abandoned,” he said. “There’s nothing more important to us than family and equality and today by not allowing a vote, the Committee failed both. We are appalled by today’s actions and stand with the undocumented members of our community in calling for respect and dignity in immigration reform.”

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, also weighed in.

“As we come together as a nation to tackle our broken immigration system, it is deplorable that a small number of Senators have been able to stand in the way of progress for lesbian and gay couples torn apart by discriminatory laws. Instead of working to achieve common-sense solutions, Senators Graham, Flake, McCain and Rubio threatened to derail the entire immigration bill to appease a small but vocal group of anti-gay social conservatives that will do anything to stop progress for lesbian and gay couples,” he said.

“We are extremely disappointed that our allies did not put their anti-LGBT colleagues on the spot and force a vote on the measure that remains popular with the American people. We will continue to work hard to include bi-national same-sex couples as the bill moves to the floor and remain committed to the underlying principles of inclusive and comprehensive immigration reform. We owe it to the estimated 267,000 undocumented LGBT adults and estimated 24,700 LGBT bi-national couples living in the U.S. today to get the job done,” Griffin said.

Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, co-director of GetEQUAL, pointed fingers.

"Let me be clear -- Senators Schumer, Feinstein, and Durbin caved today to the bullying of extreme right-wing Republicans, rather than standing up for the LGBT binational couples they claim to care so deeply about. Today it became clear that our so-called 'friends' don't have the courage or the spine to stand up for what's right, and are content to buy into the false choice that Republicans created -- holding a sorely-needed immigration bill hostage in order to cement inequality into law,” he said.

"I'm also outraged at Senator Dianne Feinstein's unwarranted and ugly attacks against ending the arbitrary filing deadline for asylum that disproportionately impact LGBT asylum-seekers. Thankfully, Senator Feinstein's attacks did not prevail, and that bar has been lifted in this bill,” he said.

"I hope that other leaders in the LGBT movement step up to publicly distance themselves from Senator Schumer for putting his political aspirations before the aspirations of same-sex binational couples across the country. As an undocumented gay man in a binational relationship, I mourn the lack of political courage that our elected leaders showed today -- but I still cling to the dream of passing a bill that upholds and uplifts the aspirations of the 267,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants currently living, working, and loving within this country's borders. As we have from the earliest days of this bill, we will fight for a clear and direct pathway to citizenship, we will fight for asylum-seekers, we will fight against mandatory and harsh employment requirements, and we will fight against cruel and unusual border enforcement."

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.