How sincere is Democrats' new commitment to gay rights?

While the right cries amnesty over the immigration bill, the left should be protesting its exclusion of gay couples

Published April 22, 2013 5:12PM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet, Kang)
(Jeff Malet, Kang)

When President Barack Obama first introduced his principles for immigration reform a little over two months ago, one notable point of differentiation from the Senate’s framework was that he chose to include same-sex couples and their kids in his plan.

As Stephen Colbert noted on "The Colbert Report," the president’s plan said it would treat “same-sex families as families.”

“What’s next, Mr. President,” Colbert jested, “treating gay people as people?”

But now that the Senate’s Gang of Eight has introduced its immigration bill and it notably excludes the provision that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for residency, the White House appears to be wavering.

When asked last week whether the president was willing to “let that provision go” at a White House briefing, press secretary Jay Carney responded, “It is certainly the case, as the president said in his statement, that not everything in the bill reflects how he would write it, but it broadly is consistent with his principles.”

Pressed further about whether President Obama would sign the bill in its current form, Carney countered, “Have you ever seen a bill of this size go from inception to a president's desk unaltered? So we’ll see where this goes.”

Hmm … We’ll see? For those of us who have been closely tracking the issue (and I’m not a passive observer here — I consult for Immigration Equality on the matter of equalizing treatment for same-sex binational couples), it looked like a softening of the incredibly strong and consistent positioning the White House presented a couple of months ago.

Here’s Carney in January: “The president believes that [the provision for same-sex couples] should be included and that should come as no surprise … the president has long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love.”

And White House senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer said several days later: “The president in his plan said that you should treat same-sex families the same way we treat heterosexual families. It’s wrong to discriminate.”

Naturally, Washington enthusiasts smell trouble. As the Washington Post noted: “The standoff may force Obama to choose between two key interest groups — Hispanics and gays — that helped power his reelection last fall.”

But at the outset, President Obama rejected that choice, instead positioning the legislation, above all, as something that should promote fairness throughout the immigration system.

“We’ve been very clear that we think that it makes sense for same-sex couples to be treated the same when it comes to immigration laws and every other law,” he said in mid-February, responding to a question about whether he was committed to including same-sex couples in immigration reform.

But the president also noted: “What I’m trying to do right now is to give Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and in the House, the opportunity to work through some of these issues to see where their compromises are.”

Those compromises are now apparent. The question is whether President Obama and his Democratic counterparts in the Senate will fight to see that same-sex couples are treated equitably in any bill that reaches the president’s desk.

Now that the Gang of Eight has weighed in, the next stop for making changes to the bill will likely be the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy who is also holding an informational hearing on the bill Monday. Leahy, a chief co-sponsor of legislation that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for residency (the Uniting American Families Act), is widely expected to offer the provision as an amendment to the immigration bill once it reaches his committee.

If the other nine Democrats on the committee follow his lead, the amendment should pass with ease. But all eyes will be on Sens. Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer. Feinstein is the only Democratic committee member who’s never signed on as a co-sponsor of UAFA, though she has co-sponsored a bill that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act — one way, among others, to alleviate this immigration inequity for LGBT citizens. Durbin and Schumer, meanwhile, represent two key members of the Gang of Eight that excluded same-sex couples from the original immigration bill.

When Leahy reintroduced UAFA this year with Republican co-sponsor Sen. Susan Collins, he noted that any immigration bill that comes through his committee “should recognize the rights of all Americans, who have just as much right to spousal immigration benefits as anybody else, straight or gay.”

Mr. Leahy, apparently, wants to treat gay Americans as Americans.

By Kerry Eleveld

Kerry Eleveld is a freelance writer, consultant and former White House correspondent for The Advocate.

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