Gay rights groups bristle at being excluded from immigration bill
Some Illinois gay rights advocates say they feel betrayed by their Democratic allies because same-sex couples aren’t legally recognized in an immigration overhaul bill that’s headed to the floor of the U.S. Senate next month.
The provision to recognize so-called bi-national same-sex couples was dropped from the bill at the last minute on Tuesday, just before it was approved, 13 to 5, by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Some Senate Republicans had warned the amendment would sink the larger immigration bill. That apparently prompted some Democrats who traditionally back gay rights issues, including Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, to urge his colleagues to leave the language relating to gay couples out of the bill.
"I believe in my heart of hearts that what you're doing is the right and just thing," Durbin said at Tuesday’s hearing. "But I believe this is the wrong moment, that this is the wrong bill."
Recognition of a same-sex relationship in federal immigration law would mean that marriage or civil unions could be grounds to grant legal status to an immigrant spouse, or to prevent their deportation. Federal law currently defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, although the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing the issue.
Its exclusion from the Senate bill, after months of lobbying lawmakers, prompted a backlash from Illinois gay rights advocates.
“My initial reaction is anger. Anger that, again, we get scapegoated,” said Julio Rodriguez, chair of the LGBTQ Immigrant Rights Coalition of Chicago.
“That’s not only a tragedy, but I think it’s a sad statement on the part of our allies, and the relationships that I think we believed that we had,” Rodriguez said.
Despite the setback, activists will continue to lobby lawmakers to include recognition for gay couples in a later amendment to the bill in the Democrat-led U.S. Senate, said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, the state’s largest gay rights advocacy group.
“This is the right bill and this is the right time,” Cherkasov said Wednesday. “You know, this is a comprehensive immigration reform. This could be the only chance we have in a decade, if not in a generation, to fix all the problems of our broken immigration system.”
The pressure from gay rights groups puts Illinois’ two senators in a difficult political position. Durbin is a liberal Democrat who has traditionally enjoyed support from the gay rights community, and Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk recently bucked his own party to announce his support for same-sex marriage.
But Durbin didn’t immediately respond to WBEZ’s interview request Wednesday. And Kirk’s office declined to comment on whether he supports recognition of same-sex couples, saying that he’s still reviewing the bill.
The news comes as a blow to the estimated 267,000 gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, according to one recent study.
The lack of legal recognition puts that group in limbo, said Phillip Knoll, a 31-year-old Chicagoan who has been dating his boyfriend, who came to the United States from Singapore on a student visa, for the last five years. The legal uncertainty makes it hard to plan for their future together, Knoll said.
“It’s weird to have to consider whether or not you’re able to make the sort of decision that’s really personal, and that something political has to happen first,” Knoll said. “I think that’s an odd way to think of yourself.”
Still, Knoll said he and his partner remain optimistic that they’ll stay together geographically. But down the road, Knoll said his boyfriend’s immigration status could affect their decision to marry – or even to leave the U.S.
“And it would feel like getting pushed out, right?” Knoll said.” I think it would feel like we were not welcome in the country [where] I was born, and in a country that he’s been welcome as a student. Why can’t he stay and contribute?”
Alex Keefe is a WBEZ political reporter. Follow him @akeefe