Ending a seemingly unbreakable deadlock, the U.S. Congress has made tremendous inroads toward passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Several weeks ago, a bipartisan group of senators popularly known as the “Gang of Eight” released their highly anticipated reform proposal. Days later, tens of thousands descended upon Capitol Hill in a “Rally for Citizenship,” demanding a legal framework for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. Public support is at an all-time high, with bipartisan polls showing as many as 77 percent of Americans in favor of a path to citizenship.
Despite tremendous advancements, divisive tensions have persisted around a series of proposals to ensure that the legislation is inclusive of all immigrants. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced an amendment last week to extend existing citizenship and residency benefits to binational same-sex couples. Inspired by the proposed United American Families Act (UAFA), the measure seeks to benefit an estimated 24,700 couples by granting foreign-born same-sex partners access to legal permanent residency through green cards. Although it is a seemingly sensible measure to ensure that the comprehensive reform bill serves all immigrants, conservative opponents have said it would threaten Republican support and derail hopes for bipartisan consensus.
Opposition against UAFA stems from a moral objection to marriage equality for same-sex couples. Pundits have labeled it a “wedge issue” and prominent reform advocates such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) have said it would cost their support. Yet despite this rhetoric, the bill makes no change to existing definitions of marriage, which are decided by states and are currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court as they pertain to same-sex couples. Furthermore, UAFA boasts bipartisan support from numerous Republicans, including the bill’s co-sponsor, Senator Susan Collins of Maine and former Congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona. During a recent visit to Costa Rica, President Obama joined a chorus of supporters and called the measure “the right thing to do” in guaranteeing equality for all Americans.
The detriment caused by not extending benefits to same-sex couples is far greater than what opponents claim would result from approving UAFA. In one instance, Ness Madeiros, a Bermudan same-sex partner residing in Minnesota, is unable to gain adoption rights for her daughter and cannot acquire joint ownership of her home. Others, such as former Republican Mayor J.W. Lown of San Angelo, Texas, are part of an increasingly large number of U.S. citizens who have had to flee the country to be with their loved ones. Beyond the excessive legal and financial obstacles same-sex binational couples face to be with their spouses, countless same-sex parents also fear being deported and losing their children to foster care because of their unequal resident status.
In addition to UAFA, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) immigrants face many barriers to inclusion in comprehensive immigration reform. LGBT undocumented immigrants—or “undocuqueers”—have spearheaded the development of a national immigrant youth movement and have gained the support of influential Latino and LGBT organizations. Together with countless others, their efforts led to President Obama’s 2012 executive order to grant temporary legal status to an estimated 800,000 individuals who entered the U.S. as children and are now able to work freely and without fears of deportation. Nevertheless, threats against the passage of a comprehensive reform bill could endanger passage of permanent provisions offered by the DREAM Act that guarantee immigrant youth access to education and a path to citizenship.
Other pressing matters for LGBT immigrants include gaining enhanced protections for undocumented individuals and the removal of a one-year filing deadline placed on asylum applicants. Under the latter provision, LGBT individuals who enter the country and fail to apply for asylum within one year of arrival—likely because they were unaware of this option or were unable to access legal services—face possible deportation to their home countries. This poses great dangers to LGBT migrants, who confront extensive persecution and threats of violence, arbitrary detention and political suppression in diverse regions of the world. Reform should also seek to offer alternatives to detention for undocumented LGBT immigrants who are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual assault in immigrant detention facilities.
The unprecedented levels of support for immigration reform are a positive development. Congressional approval of a reform bill will undoubtedly promote economic growth and improve perceptions of the United States in Latin America. Nevertheless, comprehensive legislation must incorporate meaningful provisions for LGBT immigrants, asylum seekers and their families. Specifically, the extension of residency benefits to binational same-sex couples and improved protections for undocumented individuals and asylum seekers will ensure that our immigration system promotes acceptance and provides safety to those who need it most.