Wednesday, 19 August 2009

US Congressmen face uphill battle to pass pro-gay immigration reform

jerry nadler on ear marksImage by azipaybarah via Flickr

Source: Bay Area Reporter

by Matthew S. Bajko

The two congressmen leading the fight for pro-gay immigration reform in Washington acknowledge they have an uphill fight to see their legislation passed by both the House and the Senate.

The Human Rights Campaign chose the lawmakers to be featured speakers at its annual gala in San Francisco Saturday, July 25, and both spoke of the obstacles they must overcome in addressing the discrimination faced by binational LGBT couples.

Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-New York) has spent nearly a decade pushing his Uniting American Families Act, which would allow the same-sex foreign-born partners of LGBT American citizens to immigrate to the U.S. Under the current policy, LGBT Americans cannot sponsor their partners for citizenship like heterosexuals who marry foreign-born spouses.

The result is that binational LGBT couples face difficult decisions about where to live or even if they can remain together. Their options are often limited.

Some live apart for months on end until the foreign-born partner receives permission to visit the U.S. on a tourist visa; or the American citizen must live overseas to be with the person they love until the day their partner gains U.S. citizenship.

Each year since 2000 Nadler has introduced his bill so that an LGBT American citizen does not have to "choose between their partner and their country."

Not only does the American partner suffer, said Nadler, but "their children, partner, and family also suffer." Ending the anti-gay immigration laws would "end this cruelty," he added.

But his bill has failed to gain traction within the House, and the legislation's co-sponsor, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo), recently acknowledged to the Bay Area Reporter it has few chances of being passed anytime soon.

Rather than push for a stand-alone bill, Nadler has joined forces with Congressman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) to push forward the California representative's Reuniting Families Act (H.R. 2709), a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes the pro-gay provisions of Nadler's bill.

"Mike took my language," Nadler said in an interview with the B.A.R. at the HRC fundraiser. "This year or next we will pass comprehensive immigration reform. It's been our focus to get our bill passed in Honda's bill."

Honda applauded his colleague for pushing the issue for so many years. He said he decided to include the pro-gay immigration reform in his bill after a constituent, Judy Rickard, spoke out at a town hall he held in Milpitas about her inability to be with her British-born partner, Karin Bogliolo, for longer than six-month stretches at a time.

"It never dawned upon me it was an issue until she gave her powerful testimony, and I went back to Congress and looked at the bill and said I have no choice but to include all families or we can't call it the Reuniting Families Act," said Honda during his speech.

Honda said he asked himself, "How do we define the word family?"

"To me family means all families, including same-sex partners and their children," he said.

Yet complicating passage of his bill is the fact that the Senate version, introduced by Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), does not include the pro-gay language. Menendez does support the Senate version of Nadler's stand-alone legislation introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy presided over a hearing on his bill June 3, a day before Honda introduced his comprehensive measure in the House.

Similar to Nadler's legislation, Leahy's bill also faces hurdles to becoming law. He has even failed to gain support from Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), despite her recent intervention to block the deportation of lesbian Pacifica resident Shirley Tan.

Nadler said he doesn't know what will happen in the Senate but is hopeful that the House will pass Honda's bill and the pro-gay language "will be in the negotiations for the overall bill" that gets sent to the White House. President Barack Obama has signaled that he supports ending the discriminatory policies toward LGBT binational couples.

Honda has lined up 67 co-sponsors as of this week for his legislation, far short of what is needed to pass it out of the House. At the HRC dinner he said that 34 members of Congress who received 100 percent scores on the national LGBT lobbyist group's congressional scorecard are among those who have yet to sign on to his legislation.

A check this week by the B.A.R. between the listed co-sponsors of Honda's bill and the HRC scorecard for 2008 found only 32 current House members who had perfect scores but had yet to sign on as co-sponsors. The discrepancy is likely due to the resignations this year of both California Representatives Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) and Ellen Tauscher (D-Walnut Creek) for posts in the Obama administration.

In the Bay Area the perfect scorers absent from Honda's list of co-sponsors include George Miller (D-Martinez); Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto); and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), though due to her position Pelosi refrains from co-sponsoring most legislation. Also absent from the list is Speier, who won a special election for her seat last year, despite the fact the bill incorporates the language from the legislation she is co-sponsoring with Nadler.

At the HRC dinner, Honda asked the audience to request that the organization include the Reuniting Families Act as part of its next scorecard so that the scores reflect those House members who do not back his bill.

David Stacy, an HRC senior public policy advocate, told the B.A.R. the group prefers to score members on their actual votes, rather than co-sponsorship of bills. Since they have in the past scored members on their support for Nadler's stand alone bill, he said it is unlikely they would also score support for Honda's legislation.

"It wouldn't make sense to score both since they are the same issue," said Stacy. "We are strongly supportive of the Reuniting Families Act and hope we have a vote to score."

The next scorecard will not be released until October 2010, and any decisions on how to tabulate it won't be made until closer to the end of the congressional session, said Stacy.

This year's gala did not see a return of the protests at last year's event that had many local and state politicians boycotting or refusing to attend the HRC dinner. Local activists picketed the fundraiser to show their outrage at HRC's backing in the fall of 2007 a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that excluded protections for transgender people.

At the last minute Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa backed out as a keynote speaker due to union backing of the pickets. The only gay politician to attend was Campbell City Councilman Evan Low.

Notably absent last year was out San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who stayed home and catered a pasta and pizza dinner for the protesters. Attired in a ruffled tuxedo shirt, Dufty's attendance at this year's fundraiser raised eyebrows among some in the crowd.

One member of HRC's Federal Club, consisting of people who give $5,000 or more annually, said Dufty was not welcome at the event and his involvement in last year's protest would impair his ability to attract HRC's local big money donors to fund his mayoral run in 2011.

Dufty said even HRC President Joe Solmonese told him he was "surprised" to see him at the dinner. But when Dufty was introduced among the list of local politicians at the event, his name elicited a loud round of applause. Joining Dufty at the event was his new out colleague on the board, Supervisor David Campos .

Openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) also returned to this year's event and was given a speaking slot from the stage in honor of his involvement kicking off the first local HRC gala 25 years ago. Back then Leno and his late partner served as table captains and sold 10 tickets.

The second year they sold 12 tables, and by the third event, Leno had been named co-chair of the dinner. Since then Leno has been a longtime Federal Club member and he predicted, "We are going to see magic happen the next couple of years" due to HRC's leadership in Washington.

Solmonese referred to the ENDA controversy in his prepared remarks, once again joking that the most difficult job within HRC is to be a co-chair of the San Francisco gala.

"Remember last year's dinner? It occurred to me we have gotten this far by knowing who our friends are and who our real enemies are," said Solmonese. "Last year the concept of who our friends are got a little muddled."

He defended HRC's stance on the ENDA bill, arguing that the strategy had set the stage for passage of a trans-inclusive ENDA by the House this year.

"We did the work. We never wavered. And here we are," he said.
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