Wednesday, August 29, 2007

LGBT perspectives on immigration

Last night I attended Immigration Equality/HRC's LGBT Immigration Forum, which featured headliner Rep. Jerry Nadler and included speakers from HRC, GMHC, the Asian American Justice Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

The most notable item about last night's forum was the incredible turnout. The event, which was hosted by the LGBT Center in the West Village, packed in more than 200 people. Panels like this sometimes have difficulty attracting a crowd, but it's good to see that so many people in the LGBT community are engaged (or at least interested) in an important issue--and one that doesn't get as much media play as other important gay bills (like ENDA or Hate Crimes).

The Uniting American Family Act seeks to amend the current immigration laws to allow US citizens or permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration to the US. Under current laws, only "married" couples can sponsor their partner for immigration, which automatically excludes gay and lesbian couples. UAFA would amend the current language to add "permanent partners who cannot otherwise marry," which would obviously implicate same-sex couples. It is estimated that at least 35,000 bi-national same-sex couples in the US are affected by the discrimination in the current immigration laws.

The highlight of the evening was hearing Rep. Nadler speak very candidly about the bill's chance of passage in the current Congress. When asked by an audience member what would happen if a vote were called today, he responded that he believed that he would have "close to the amount, if not enough votes to pass the bill." But he also reminded listeners that congressional politics are much more complicated than that. Questions still remain as to where this bill stands in the Senate, and although not directly stated, other pieces of pro-LGBT legislation may be taking some of the necessary political capital needed to pass UAFA.

For activists looking to make some calls and write some letters, Rep. Nadler noted that the key players in moving this bill are: Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the House subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law; Rep. John Conyers, who as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, must give his OK before a hearing on any bill; and finally House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who ultimately wields the power to call a bill onto the floor for a vote. Lofgren and Conyers support the bill, but moving it is another story...

Another interesting dimension to the forum was the discussion on where LGBT issues fall in the broader spectrum of immigration reform in the US. The issue of immigration generally has been incendiary for the current Congress, and even pitted Senate Republicans against President Bush earlier this year. Staff attorneys from the Asian American Justice Center and MALDEF gave their views on immigration as they affected the Asian and Latino communities. Their message essentially was that it's important for all parties interested in immigration reform to be working together so that 1) the reform will be comprehensive, addressing issues important to all affected minority groups and 2) legislators are facing pressure from the largest possible bloc of voters.

UAFA is one of the many pieces of legislation that same-sex couples rely on in order to get some of the protections and benefits that marriage would otherwise automatically provide. But because the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will likely happen anytime in the immediate future, this bill is a worth-while cause. The consensus of the panelists was that passage of bills like UAFA will not likely come until Democrats pick up a few more seats in both the House and the Senate and a new (and Democratic) President is elected. According to HRC's scorecard, all Democratic Presidential candidates have vocally supported the Uniting American Families Act.

In the meantime, Rep. Nadler advises us to keep our US Representatives' "feet to the fire" so that once the planets align in Washington, we as a community can take full advantage.

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