The current immigration reform bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee two and a half weeks ago, and is expected to be debated on the Senate floor early next week. As the bill moves forward, many national LGBT organizations voice their support, but criticize both parties for failing to make the bill more inclusive. Much of the criticism focuses on the May 21st decision by Senator Leahy (D-Vermont) to withdraw an amendment that would have granted binational same sex couples the ability to sponsor a foreign-born partner for residency or citizenship. The amendment would have benefited an estimated 40,000 couples. Republicans had threatened to kill the bill if same sex couples were included in the legislation.
Many LGBT organizations advocated for the inclusion of same sex partners in the immigration reform bill, and were bitterly disappointed by the turn of events. “There should be shame on both sides of the political aisle today for lawmakers who worked to deny LGBT immigrant families a vote,” said Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality. “We are disappointed that Senator Schumer and his ‘Gang of 8’ colleagues accepted a false choice between LGBT families and immigration reform.”
While some gay philanthropists have publicly withdrawn support from the Democratic Party as a result of the failed amendment, many major LGBT institutions like the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD continue to stand behind the immigration reform bill. According to the Washington Blade:
“Even without the provision for gay couples, LGBT groups are continuing to say they support the measure because it contains other provisions that would directly impact the LGBT community and provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 267,000 LGBT people who are among the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.”
Steve Ralls of Immigration Equality reported that the amendment could be introduced on the Senate floor, though he acknowledged a lot depends on the Supreme Court and its heavily anticipated ruling on the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
As the mainstream LGBT movement continues to press for marriage equality, some queer advocates question the movement’s focus on marriage as a way to access benefits such as healthcare and immigration status, arguing that such strategies only benefit the most privileged members of the LGBT community. At a marriage equality rally in front of the Supreme Court in late March, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) censored the story of an undocumented queer immigrant and asked a trans activist to remove a trans flag from the podium, provoking continued concerns that HRC and other marriage-focused organizations do not and will not prioritize the needs of more vulnerable LGBT people, particularly those who are undocumented and transgender.
Beyond the fate of same sex marriage petitions, the recent markup in the Senate Judiciary Committee did include other positive amendments for LGBT immigrants. In particular, the bill was amended to eliminate the one year filing deadline for asylum status. According the National Immigrant Justice Center, one in five immigrants who apply for refugee status are denied because they missed the twelve month deadline:
Bona fide asylum seekers frequently miss the one-year deadline because they do not have access to legal information or resources they need to submit their applications less than a year after they flee to the United States. Many spend their first months or years in the United States consumed with their survival and that of their loved ones. Some do not speak English and encounter language barriers to understanding complex immigration laws. Many people, particularly those who fled countries where they were targeted for persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, do not realize that asylum protection is available for people in their situations until they have lived in the United States for many years.
Advocates believe this change is especially important for LGBT immigrants who might be eligible for asylum status due to persecution because of sexual orientation or gender identity, but miss the deadline because they have not disclosed either their sexual orientation or their transgender status.
Another amendment regarding solitary confinement could offer protection to detainees, particularly LGBT detainees who face abuse and extended administrative segregation, or solitary confinement. The amendment restricts the use of solitary confinement, and if enforced, could limit both the frequency and length of administrative segregation.
More broadly, many remain hopeful that a strong immigration bill could provide legal status and citizenship for millions of undocumented people, hundreds of thousands of whom are LGBT.