I’m not sure it’s fully understood just how difficult a dilemma Democrats face when it comes to the question of how hard to push for protections for gay couples as part of immigration reform. The situation is really a terrible one that could force Dems to make a very hard choice — and to gamble too heavily on the Supreme Court to solve the problem for them.

Right now, Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is deciding whether to introduce amendments to the Gang of Eight immigration bill that would extend the same immigration rights to gay and lesbian couples that it does to straight couples. Republicans such as Marco Rubio have insisted that if Dems do this, it will kill the bill by giving conservatives a way to walk away from it. And now, the Associated Press reports:

Two people familiar with the Senate immigration deliberations say the White House has suggested to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy that it would be best to put off a controversy over gay marriage until a bill goes before the full Senate.
President Barack Obama backs the proposal to give equal treatment to gays and lesbians, but is unlikely to veto a broad immigration bill that does not include the provision.
/article_body Leahy, the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee, has not yet said whether he will seek a vote on the provision in committee. He could raise the issue again if the bill goes before the full Senate.

I would approach this report with caution. It could represent Dems on the Hill trying to shift blame to the White House for what they themselves have decided is inevitable: Not voting the pro-LGBT amendments out of committee. People on all sides refused my request for clarification. Whatever the truth here, however, this confirms just how unfortunate the current situation has become.

The problem is that, while gay and lesbian couples comprise a relatively small number compared to the overall number who would be impacted by immigration reform, not offering them the same rights will put them in an awful situation. “To be separated from the person you love the most in the whole world because of government discrimination is really wrenching,” prominent gay rights advocate Richard Socarides tells me. “Even though it might not effect a huge group of people, the impact on them is very severe.”

On the other hand, Socarides continues, “nobody in the progressive community, myself included, wants to stand in the way of immigration reform. It’s a terrible dilemma for everyone.”

Making this even harder is another wild card: the pending decision by the Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act. If SCOTUS strikes down DOMA as unconstitutional, it could largely resolve this issue by affording gay married couples the same federal recognition as straight married couples receive. According to Socarides, this could make the current debate largely moot. So there is a temptation not to insert the LGBT protections in the immigration reform bill, and hope that SCOTUS resolves the issue later. On the other hand, if Dems move forward with immigration reform without the LGBT protections, and SCOTUS does not strike DOMA down as unconstitutional, that leaves gay and lesbian couples in limbo.

“Because it’s impossible to know for sure how the court will rule, we have to be aggressive in pushing for this in committee,” Socarides says.

But could that kill immigration reform? I’ve said here before that Democrats should push the issue and challenge Republicans to kill reform solely because they don’t want to extend protections to gays and lesbians. But in truth, some immigration reform advocates do worry that doing this would, in fact, cause Republicans to walk away.

“Republicans have put us in a terrible position,” Socarides concludes. “In this situation, it may be very difficult to find the right path.”