By Scott Wong
Dems link gay rights, immigration
Trying to broaden support for immigration reform, key Democratic lawmakers on Thursday will endorse legislation that would grant gay and lesbian Americans the ability to legally bring their foreign partners to the United States.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Rep. Mike Honda of California and others will urge Congress to pass the Uniting American Families Act this year as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package.
But both parties are skeptical of that strategy. They warn that introducing a contentious issue just months before the midterm elections could add fuel to the immigration debate and erode support from lawmakers in socially conservative districts.
"It adds another dimension to the issue that will be the subject of significant debate," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "For sure, it will enhance the debate."
More than 100 House Democrats, including many Hispanics, have signed on to the comprehensive immigration bill Gutierrez introduced last December. But Joanna Burgos, a National Republican Campaign Committee spokeswoman, said the gay rights provision -- opposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals -- could scare away some supporters.
"If they're trying to appeal to the Hispanic vote, gay marriage is not the right issue for their socially conservative values," Burgos said. "I think it puts Democrats in Hispanic districts in an awkward position because they are very socially conservative."
With no GOP support, Gutierrez's bill has stalled in the House. But he said on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" Wednesday that he believes comprehensive immigration legislation has the backing of 200 of his colleagues, 17 votes shy of a majority.
Gutierrez and others are now trying to sweeten the legislation to attract more votes. And they're targeting advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, a constituency that hasn't before played a visible role in the immigration debate.
"An immigration bill with gay and lesbian families attracts more votes than an immigration bill without them," said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for New York-based Immigration Equality, which works to end discrimination in immigration law and has been pushing for passage of the Families Act, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in the House and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate.
Republican leaders, who are pressing the federal government to secure the border before fixing the broken immigration system, said they won't support reform so long as it includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
"They're trying to sweeten the package, but the fact is, it's got a poison pill inside it. They're asking us to swallow amnesty," said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), chairman of the bipartisan Immigration Reform Caucus. "This is a special package that rewards illegal behavior instead of enforcing the law."
Under current immigration law, American citizens and other legal permanent residents can secure a green card or immigrant visa for a spouse or immediate family member living abroad. But the same rights don't extend to the estimated 36,000 same-sex, binational couples living in the U.S.
"Couples who are in love, who are committed, who are married, should not be separated, one in this country, the other in that country," Nadler said at a Thursday news conference on Capitol Hill. "No immigration reform measure will truly be deserving of the term "comprehensive' unless it provides equality for gays and lesbians as well."
Though his immigration bill didn't include the gay rights language when it was filed last year, Gutierrez told POLITICO on Wednesday he has always been committed to equal immigration rights for gays.
"It's the right thing to do. Families should be included, and as we move forward, that should be our guiding principle for comprehensive immigration reform," Gutierrez said. "To use the old adage, the tent is big enough."