In im­mi­gra­tion de­bate, gay rights come to the fore

GOP, re­li­gious groups con­demn Obama’s le­gal-res­i­dency pro­posal

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DAVID NAKA­MURA AND ZACHARY A. GOLD­FARB naka­mu­rad@wash­post.com gold­farbz@wash­post.com

In his fi­nal leg­isla­tive act as a se­na­tor, Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry sought to re­solve an in­ter­na­tional dilemma. He filed Se­nate Bill 48, seek­ing “per­ma­nent res­i­dent sta­tus for Ge­n­e­sio Jan­uario Oliveira,” a gay Brazil­ian na­tional fac­ing de­por­ta­tion be­cause he does not qual­ify for a spousal visa.

Now, Pres­i­dent Obama is aim­ing to grant same-sex cou­ples such as Oliveira and his Amer­i­can hus­band, Tim Coco, equal im­mi­gra­tion rights as their het­ero­sex­ual coun­ter­parts. The pro­posal could al­low up to 40,000 for­eign na­tion­als in same-sex re­la­tion­ships to ap­ply for le­gal res­i­dency and, po­ten­tially, U.S. cit­i­zen­ship.

But the mea­sure has in­spired fierce push­back from con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans and some re­li­gious groups, who say it could sink hopes for a com­pre­hen­sive agree­ment aimed at pro­vid­ing a path to cit­i­zen­ship for 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

The stand­off may force Obama “Which is more im­por­tant: LGBT or bor­der se­cu­rity?”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to choose be­tween two key in­ter­est groups — His­pan­ics and gays — that helped power his re­elec­tion in the fall. The pres­i­dent must weigh how force­fully to push the bill, known as the Unit­ing Amer­i­can Fam­i­lies Act, while not en­dan­ger­ing a long-sought deal to re­solve the sta­tus of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, most of whom are Latino.

The same-sex mea­sure was not in­cluded in the im­mi­gra­tion pro­pos­als is­sued last week by a bi­par­ti­san Se­nate work­ing group, whose over­all frame­work Obama largely em­braced. Sev­eral key Chris­tian groups that have sup­ported the White House’s im­mi­gra­tion push have ob­jected to the mea­sure on the grounds that it would erode tra­di­tional mar­riage.

The is­sue has prompted an in­tense lob­by­ing ef­fort on both sides, in­clud­ing a let­ter to the White House from a coali­tion of in­flu­en­tial church or­ga­ni­za­tions and a se­ries of ur­gent con­fer­ence calls be­tween ad­vo­cates, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and law­mak­ers.

For Obama, the po­lit­i­cal sensi- tiv­ity was ev­i­dent in the pub­lic roll­out of his im­mi­gra­tion plans last Tues­day. Although the same­sex pro­vi­sion was in­cluded in doc­u­ments dis­trib­uted by the White House, the pres­i­dent did not men­tion it in his im­mi­gra­tion speech in Las Ve­gas.

“The pres­i­dent in his plan said that you should treat same-sex fam­i­lies the same way we treat het­ero­sex­ual fam­i­lies,” White House se­nior ad­viser Dan Pfeif­fer said Fri­day on “Po­lit­i­cal Cap­i­tal With Al Hunt.” “It’s wrong to dis­crim­i­nate. It’s a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the pres­i­dent’s view about same-sex mar­riage, the view about pro­vid­ing equal rights, no mat­ter who you love.”

But con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans im­me­di­ately con­demned the idea and warned that the mea­sure im­per­ils broader im­mi­gra­tion re­form. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the sen­a­tors on the eight-mem­ber bi­par­ti­san work­ing group on im­mi­gra­tion, said at a Politico break­fast last week that in­ject­ing so­cial is­sues into the de­bate over im­mi­gra­tion leg­is­la­tion “is the best way to de­rail it.”

“Which is more im­por­tant: LGBT or bor­der se­cu­rity?” McCain said, us­ing an ab­bre­vi­a­tion for peo­ple who are les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual or trans­gen­der. “I’ ll tell you what my pri­or­i­ties are.”

Be­hind the scenes, the lob­by­ing ef­forts be­gan be­fore the pres­i­dent’s speech. A coali­tion of re­li­gious groups — in­clud­ing Ro­man Catholics, evan­gel­i­cals and South­ern Bap­tists — de­liv­ered a let­ter to the White House last week op­pos­ing the same-sex mea­sure.

“It’s an over­reach,” said Kevin Ap­pleby, di­rec­tor of mi­gra­tion pol­icy and pub­lic af­fairs at the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops, which signed the let­ter. “Im­mi­gra­tion is hard enough as it is and adding an­other con­tro­ver­sial is­sue to the mix makes it even harder. I’m sur­prised the ad­min­is­tra­tion would risk sac­ri­fic­ing 11 mil­lion peo­ple over this is­sue. It’s very com­bustible.” ‘We’re al­ways wor­ried’

On a White House con­fer­ence call with in­ter­est groups af­ter Obama’s ap­pear­ance in Las Ve­gas, the first ques­tion was from an evan­gel­i­cal ac­tivist who ob­jected to the pro­vi­sion. Re­li­gious groups pushed back again Wed­nes­day on an­other White House call, ac­cord­ing to a per­son who par­tic­i­pated in the con­ver­sa­tion.

On the other side, sev­eral Se­nate Democrats, in­clud­ing Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Robert Me­nen­dez (N. J.), had a con­fer­ence call with gay or­ga­ni­za­tions blam­ing Repub­li­cans for not in­clud­ing the same-sex pro­vi­sion in the bi­par­ti­san im­mi­gra­tion pro­posal.

The ad­vo­cates were told that Sen. Pa­trick J. Leahy (DVt.), chair­man of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, would of­fer an amend­ment to in­clude the pro­vi­sion in any com­pre­hen­sive leg­is­la­tion that is for­mally in­tro­duced, ac­cord­ing to a per­son in­volved in the call.

Mean­while, tens of thou­sands of same-sex cou­ples wait in limbo. Although the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been us­ing its pros­e­cu­to­rial dis­cre­tion to avoid de­port­ing part­ners who are il­le­gally in the coun­try, many cou­ples say un­cer­tainty makes it im­pos­si­ble to plan for the long term.

“It’s on our mind ev­ery day,” said Coco, who has been mar­ried to Oliveira since 2005 and lives in Haver­hill, Mass. “We’re al­ways wor­ried about our fu­ture.”

Obama — who en­dorsed same­sex mar­riage in the spring — re­ceived broad sup­port and sig­nif­i­cant cam­paign funds from the LGBT com­mu­nity. On the cam­paign trail, Obama of­ten touted as a ma­jor achieve­ment his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s end­ing of the mil­i­tary’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” pol­icy to­ward gays.

“He’s proven that es­pe­cially on les­bian [and] gay is­sues, when he stands up and works for change, that the Amer­i­can pub­lic and Congress comes along with him,” said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for Im­mi­gra­tion Equal­ity, a group push­ing for same-sex im­mi­gra­tion pro­tec­tions. “That will be the case here, too.”

Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, na­tional field di­rec­tor of GetEqual, a gay civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, said Obama gave a “really strong vi­sion” for gay rights in his in­au­gu­ra­tion speech last month.

“I hope that’s more than words and will ac­tu­ally bring con­crete ac­tions,” Sousa-Rodriguez said. If Obama does not fight hard for the same-sex pro­vi­sion, he added, “I’ ll be highly dis­ap­pointed.”

Not all gay rights groups are united. Some ac­tivists said they would not stand in the way of an im­mi­gra­tion deal with­out the same-sex cou­ples pro­vi­sion if the alternative was no re­form deal at all. Th­ese ac­tivists said an over­all pol­icy en­cour­ag­ing cit­i­zen­ship could help up to 700,000 il­le­gal im­mi­grants who are es­ti­mated to be gay. Ques­tions of tim­ing

In the mean­time, the Supreme Court is re­view­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the De­fense of Mar­riage Act, a fed­eral law that man­dates mar­riage ben­e­fits only for het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples. Some gay rights ad­vo­cates said that if the court strikes down the law, per­haps as early as June, the ques­tion of a same-sex pro­vi­sion in im­mi­gra­tion law could be ren­dered ir­rel­e­vant.

That’s lit­tle so­lace for Coco and Oliveira, who spent three years of their mar­riage apart, af­ter an im­mi­gra­tion judge or­dered Oliveira to re­turn to Brazil in 2007. Only af­ter Kerry, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. and Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Janet Napoli­tano made per­sonal ap­peals for the cou­ple in 2010 did im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials grant Oliveira a one-year visa on hu­man­i­tar­ian grounds.

With that rul­ing ex­pired, Kerry stepped in again Jan. 22 with his fi­nal Se­nate bill on be­half of Oliveira, who will be al­lowed to stay in the coun­try as the leg­is­la­tion is de­lib­er­ated. Coco, an ad agency owner, doesn’t ex­pect it to be ap­proved.

“It took a while for Pres­i­dent Obama to evolve on gay mar­riage, but the na­tion has evolved much fur­ther if you look at the pub­lic polls,” Coco said. “I be­lieve the pres­i­dent has some obli­ga­tion to push the en­ve­lope. The time has come.”

GRETCHEN ERTL FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Tim Coco, left, and Ge­n­e­sio Jan­uario Oliveira mar­ried in 2005, but Oliveira faces de­por­ta­tion be­cause he does not qual­ify for a spousal visa.

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