By Erin Kelly
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Gay rights has emerged as an unexpected point of controversy in the congressional debate over immigration reform, prompting key Republicans to warn that it could derail efforts to reach a bipartisan compromise.
President Obama and some congressional Democrats are pushing for any immigration reform plan to include a provision to allow gay Americans to sponsor their immigrant partners for legal residency in the United States. That is a right currently enjoyed only by married heterosexual couples.
But Republican leaders on immigration reform say it's already going to be an uphill battle to convince their GOP colleagues to support a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Including a provision for gay partners will make reform legislation an even tougher sell, key senators said.
"I'm telling you now, if you load this (immigration reform legislation) up with social issues and things that are controversial, it will endanger the issue," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said at a forum this week sponsored by Politico.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., expressed similar concerns during an interview with the BuzzFeed online news site this week.
"I think if that issue (gay rights) becomes a central issue in the debate it's going to become harder to get it done because there will be strong feelings on both sides," Rubio said.
McCain and Rubio are part of a group of eight senators -- four Republicans and four Democrats -- who recently unveiled a bipartisan blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform. Their efforts have sparked optimism among immigration rights' advocates that legislation might finally be passed to deal with the divisive issue.
The senators' bipartisan blueprint does not include any provision for gay citizens to sponsor their immigrant partners for legal status. However, a plan announced by Obama late last month does include the language, which supporters estimate would affect 30,000 to 40,000 gay Americans and their partners.
This week, a group of 16 House members -- 14 Democrats and two moderate Republicans from the Northeast -- introduced the "Uniting American Families Act" to allow gay Americans to sponsor their "permanent partners" to become legal U.S. residents -- and eventually citizens.
"Permanent partners" are described as two adults who intend to make a lifelong commitment to one another.
"Today, thousands of committed same-sex couples are needlessly suffering because of unequal treatment under our immigration laws, and this is an outrage," said Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who led the effort to introduce the same-sex partners' bill in the House. "Any serious legislative proposal for comprehensive immigration reform absolutely must include gay and lesbian couples and their families."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he intends to introduce identical legislation in that chamber soon with more than 25 Democratic co-sponsors and the support of Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
"More than two dozen countries recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes," Collins said. "This important civil rights legislation would help prevent committed, loving families from being forced to choose between leaving their family or leaving their country."
But some of the religious groups that strongly support immigration reform say they will oppose the inclusion of the same-sex provision in any comprehensive bill. U.S. Catholic bishops, with the support of evangelicals, have written a letter to Obama urging him to remove the provision from his immigration reform plan.
"Injecting a contentious social issue into the immigration debate calls into question the commitment to actually achieving immigration reform," said Galen Carey, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "Too many politicians in both parties are using the immigration issue to score political points. We need a laser focus on building bipartisan consensus on fixing our broken immigration system. The future for millions of immigrant families hangs in the balance."
Frank Sharry, a longtime immigrant rights' advocate and executive director of America's Voice, acknowledged that the same-sex partner issue will spark controversy but does not believe it will derail immigration reform.
"I'm sure it will be the subject of a huge amendment fight when an immigration reform bill comes to the Senate floor," said Sharry, who supports the same-sex partner provision. "But I think it will ultimately survive. I don't think it will be a deal-breaker."
Sharry said Republicans are anxious to court Latinos, who are the fastest growing ethnic group in America. Latino voters overwhelming supported Obama and Democratic congressional candidates in last fall's election, in part because of Republican opposition to any immigration reform that would offer illegal immigrants a chance to earn their way to legal status and citizenship.
"Republicans are trying to save themselves from certain electoral doom by reaching out to Latino voters," Sharry said. "That's a much bigger concern for them than a same-sex partner provision. It may bring some howls of protest, but I'm optimistic it won't bring down the reform process."
Gay rights' activists agree.
"I think the country has changed and has come a long way on both the issue of gay marriage and the issue of immigration reform," said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, a Tampa, Fla., resident and national field director for GetEQUAL, a gay rights' group. "If we're really going to fix our broken immigration system, we can't leave anyone out. We need to fix it for everyone."
Gannett Washington Bureau