Commentary: Will Immigration Reform Be Comprehensive and Inclusive?

Pelosi and Boehner. (Photo: Flickr/talkradionews)

Republican leadership in Congress now appears to be on board with immigration reform, shocked into action by the potency of the Latino vote and awakened to a new political order that includes people of color. But will reform be truly comprehensive, offering a path to citizenship for some 11 million unauthorized immigrants? Will it be inclusive, embracing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) immigrant families?

Speaker Boehner, supported by talking heads who dramatically “evolved” on the issue a day after Gov. Romney’s drubbing, seems determined to fix our immigration system and address the plight of our undocumented neighbors. There are those in the GOP however, who bristle at the idea of a compromise that goes beyond tighter border enforcement and visas for much needed scientists and farm workers.

While I remain skeptical about any major legislation breaking Washington’s congressional impasse, comprehensive immigration reform is conceivable if both parties harken back to the day, not too long ago, when they actually agreed on a comprehensive immigration framework. I am concerned however that along the way, gay binational couples will be thrown under the bus as lawmakers “compromise.”

Steve Ralls, Director of Communications at Immigration Equality assures me that this is unlikely to happen. Immigration Equality has been at the forefront of pushing immigration reform that is both comprehensive and inclusive.

“All signs are pointing to an immigration reform effort early in the new Congress,” Ralls said. “Immigration Equality is confident we can ensure that effort will include LGBT binational families. The combination of steadfast allies on the Hill; a president who has vowed to end the separation of our families; and a vigorous grassroots mobilization makes us more optimistic than ever that we can win this within the next year.”

His confidence stems from having key lawmakers such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the side of LGBT immigrant families.

“Leaders on immigration and LGBT issues – such as Congressman (Jerrold) Nadler (D-NY), Congressman (Mike) Honda (D-CA), Congresswoman (Zoe) Lofgren (D-CA) and Congressman (Luis) Gutierrez (D-IL) – have committed that they will work for an inclusive bill,” he added. “And in the Senate, any immigration reform measure will first have to be approved by the Judiciary Committee before moving to the full Senate for a vote.”

The Judiciary Committee is chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), a lead sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) which brings equality to gay couples under immigration law. Senator Leahy has promised that only an inclusive bill will leave his committee, and that he will work hand-in-hand with other lawmakers – including Republicans – to make that a reality.

One of these Republicans is Senator Susan Collins. When asked whether Senator Collins would support an inclusive immigration reform bill, her office sent a statement reiterating her commitment to UAFA.

“This legislation would simply update our nation’s immigration laws to treat bi-national couples equally,” Collins said. “More than two dozen countries recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes. This important civil rights legislation would help prevent committed, loving families from being forced to choose between leaving their family or leaving their country.”

Another key player is the president himself who received overwhelming support from LGBT and immigrant communities in his bid for reelection.  Mr. Obama has signaled action on immigration in 2013.

“Immigration Equality’s team has already started reaching out to our key allies – on the Hill, in the Administration and among LGBT and immigration advocacy organizations – to ensure we have the public support, Congressional votes and allied support we need to get an inclusive bill introduced and passed,” Ralls said. “The seismic shift on LGBT and immigrants’ rights issues that has taken place in Washington and across the country makes us believe that passage of an inclusive bill isn’t just possible, but indeed is likely.”

Let’s hope so.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.