In immigration debate, same-sex marriage comes to the fore

Gretchen Ertl/For The Washington Post - Tim Coco, left, and his husband, Genesio Januario Oliveira, were legally wed in 2005. But Oliveira now faces deportation because current immigration laws do not allow spouses in same-sex marriages to obtain visas.

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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.

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Mapping same-sex marriage
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Mapping same-sex marriage

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 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 sensitivity was evident in the public rollout of his immigration plans last Tuesday. Although the same-sex 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 (D-
Vt.), 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 same-sex 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.”

 
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