Tim Coco, left, and his husband, Genesio Januario Oliveira, were legally… (Gretchen Ertl/For The Washington…)
In his final legislative act as a senator, Secretary of State John F. Kerry sought to resolve an international dilemma. He filed Senate Bill 48, seeking “permanent resident status for Genesio Januario Oliveira,” a gay Brazilian national facing deportation because he does not qualify for a spousal visa.
Now, President Obama is aiming to grant same-sex couples such as Oliveira and his American husband, Tim Coco, equal immigration rights as their heterosexual counterparts. The proposal could allow up to 40,000 foreign nationals in same-sex relationships to apply for legal residency and, potentially, U.S. citizenship.
But the measure has inspired fierce pushback from congressional Republicans and some religious groups, who say it could sink hopes for a comprehensive agreement aimed at providing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The standoff may force Obama to choose between two key interest groups — Hispanics and gays — that helped power his reelection in the fall. The president must weigh how forcefully to push the bill, known as the Uniting American Families Act, while not endangering a long-sought deal to resolve the status of undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Latino.
The same-sex measure was not included in the immigration proposals issued last week by a bipartisan Senate working group, whose overall framework Obama largely embraced. Several key Christian groups that have supported the White House’s immigration push have objected to the measure on the grounds that it would erode traditional marriage.
The issue has prompted an intense lobbying effort on both sides, including a letter to the White House from a coalition of influential church organizations and a series of urgent conference calls between advocates, administration officials and lawmakers.
For Obama, the political sensitivity was evident in the public rollout of his immigration plans last Tuesday. Although the same-sex provision was included in documents distributed by the White House, the president did not mention it in his immigration speech in Las Vegas.
“The president in his plan said that you should treat same-sex families the same way we treat heterosexual families,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Friday on “Political Capital With Al Hunt.” “It’s wrong to discriminate. It’s a natural extension of the president’s view about same-sex marriage, the view about providing equal rights, no matter who you love.”
But congressional Republicans immediately condemned the idea and warned that the measure imperils broader immigration reform. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the senators on the eight-member bipartisan working group on immigration, said at a Politico breakfast last week that injecting social issues into the debate over immigration legislation “is the best way to derail it.”
“Which is more important: LGBT or border security?” McCain said, using an abbreviation for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. “I’ll tell you what my priorities are.”
Behind the scenes, the lobbying efforts began before the president’s speech. A coalition of religious groups — including Roman Catholics, evangelicals and Southern Baptists — delivered a letter to the White House last week opposing the same-sex measure.
“It’s an overreach,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which signed the letter. “Immigration is hard enough as it is and adding another controversial issue to the mix makes it even harder. I’m surprised the administration would risk sacrificing 11 million people over this issue. It’s very combustible.”
‘We’re always worried’
On a White House conference call with interest groups after Obama’s appearance in Las Vegas, the first question was from an evangelical activist who objected to the provision. Religious groups pushed back again Wednesday on another White House call, according to a person who participated in the conversation.
On the other side, several Senate Democrats, including Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.), had a conference call with gay organizations blaming Republicans for not including the same-sex provision in the bipartisan immigration proposal.
The advocates were told that Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-
Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, would offer an amendment to include the provision in any comprehensive legislation that is formally introduced, according to a person involved in the call.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of same-sex couples wait in limbo. Although the Obama administration has been using its prosecutorial discretion to avoid deporting partners who are illegally in the country, many couples say uncertainty makes it impossible to plan for the long term.