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Immigration reform for same-sex couples may be long shot, but advocates push on

LGBT advocates are pushing for a provision allowing same-sex couples the same immigrant visa sponsorship rights as straight married couples as part of comprehensive immigration reform; in January, President Obama indicated his support.
LGBT advocates are pushing for a provision allowing same-sex couples the same immigrant visa sponsorship rights as straight married couples as part of comprehensive immigration reform; in January, President Obama indicated his support.
Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

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When President Obama unveiled his immigration reform blueprint in January, gay and lesbian advocates cheered. That’s because the president's plan would allow same-sex couples to sponsor a foreign-born partner for an immigrant visa.

But as the clock ticks toward the expected target date — likely in April — for reform bills to be introduced in the Senate and House, LGBT groups pushing for a same-sex partner provision know they have their work cut out for them.

In the small Wilshire Boulevard office of API Equality LA, gears have shifted recently. For years, the organization — which advocates for gay and lesbian Asian Americans — focused mostly on legalizing same-sex marriage. But recently, the small staff has become part of the national immigrant rights movement, reaching out to legislators and working with mainstream groups.

“I would say the greatest focus for us right now is same sex bi-national couples,” said executive director Eileen Ma.

Like other immigrant LGBT groups, they want for same-sex couples to have the same rights as straight married couples when it comes to sponsoring an immigrant partner for a visa. The White House thinks it’s a good idea, but the Senate has yet to embrace it; no mention of same-sex couples was made when the Senate's immigration blueprint was announced in January.

But there is a stand-alone bill in the Senate, the Uniting American Families Act, and LGBT advocates hope it can be worked into a comprehensive reform package. Ma said she's cautiously optimistic.

“There is a concern that while the proposals may be on the table now... that somehow it will get compromised away at the end of the day," Ma said. "I think that trepidation is tempered by the realization that we can actually organize among ourselves and make sure our voices are heard.”

But with all the wrangling already taking place over how to create a path to citizenship for the undocumented, a provision that gives equal sponsorship rights to same-sex couples could fall victim to politics and to a "poison pill" mentality says Kevin Johnson, law school dean and a professor of immigration law at UC Davis.

"Immigration is a hot button issue, and same-sex marriage is an arguably even hotter issue, more controversial," he said. "And I think that Republicans in the House who are already starting to gear up for a re-election campaign, and Democrats in the House who are going to face re-election, they are much more likely to be more conservative on same-sex marriage in immigration reform.”

The perception that a same-sex provision would add an extra hurdle to a comprehensive immigration package is something that LGBT immigrant activists are trying to change. It’s a two-sided challenge, says Jorge Gutierrez of the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project, part of a youth immigrant activist group United We Dream.

On one hand, they’re trying to convince mainstream gay and lesbian groups to back same-sex immigration reform; on the other, "if you go to the immigrant rights movement, I think the challenge has been there," Gutierrez says. "You know, the homophobia is still very much at the core of the immigrant rights movement and the mainstream. So how do we push on that?"

He says part of the task of building bridges with mainstream immigrant rights and Latino groups is getting this message across: “You’ve got to stop using this outdated rhetoric, saying that if you support the LBGT communities, we’re going to lose out on both.“

Activists such as Gutierrez and Ma say if nothing happens this time, there’s always that adage about living to fight another day. There's still the stand-alone bill, and there will be lawmakers they can persuade to champion a same-sex reform measure. But they’re not going there yet.

“No one goes in to any kind of endeavor expecting to fail," Ma said. "And I think that would be a failure for our community if we did not achieve immigration equality for same-sex couples this round...I think what we are bracing ourselves for is the work ahead of us in these next couple of months, to make sure that people know we are serious and that there are people who are behind this change.”

And if that doesn’t work, there’s the U.S. Supreme Court. In June the justices are expected to rule on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the government from recognizing same-sex marriages when it comes to applying for a green card. A ruling against the federal statute would change this, although some legal experts say immigration laws may still need to be adjusted accordingly.

But for married same-sex binational couples, it would be a welcome first step.