How Gay Families Might Be Included in Immigration Reform

PHOTO: Sen. Patrick Leahy is expected to add an amendment advancing same-sex protections.

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The Senate's Gang of Eight immigration reform bill was introduced without language extending protections to same-sex families on Wednesday.

That's a problem for couples who face discrimination because of their sexual orientation -- it means the immigration system will continue to treat their marriages as less than equal.

Stakeholders who care about the issue are turning to the next step in the legislative process: committee amendments.

For example, the advocacy group Immigration Equality is counting on Sen. Patrick Leahy to introduce Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) as an amendment to the bill during the committee process.

Such an amendment would allow permanent partners of U.S. citizens or permanent residents to obtain permanent resident status in the same way a spouse would. Leahy, a longtime supporter of LGBT rights, is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill will make its first stop in the Senate.

"Our total focus is on making sure that we have the votes in committee to ensure that the bill, when it reaches the full senate, does include our families," Steve Ralls, spokesman for Immigration Equality, told ABC/Univision.

Ralls says advocates are "cautiously optimistic" that when the bill leaves committee it will include language protective of gay and lesbian families.

"We do believe we have the votes, but we're not taking it for granted," he said.

There is emphasis on inserting the language into the Senate version, because it is unlikely to be included in a bill passed by the Republican-controlled House.

What happens if the Senate version of immigration reform has language protecting same-sex families, but House version doesn't?

There will be a chance to reconcile the two in conference committee, the penultimate step where bills are combined before going to the president. If that happens, Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of League of Latin American Citizens, which works to advance civil rights and quality of life issues for Hispanics in the United States, thinks lesbian and gay families will have a chance to get equal treatment.

"Once you get to conference [committee], you can get people away from those political considerations and just do technical fixes to make sure the bill is complete," Wilkes told ABC/Univision. "If you haven't specifically excluded same-sex couples, there can be a clarification within the language that says 'yes,' this also applies to same sex couples."

In a recent analysis of the unfolding story around LGBT inclusion into the bill Prerna Lal, founder of immigrantion reform organization Dream Activist, has called the strong push, which framed immigration reform as an LGBT issue when no language exists, pinkwashing. Pinkwashing is use of pro-LGBT rhetoric to appear liberal or progressive.

"In the context of immigration reform, [pinkwashing] is making the legislation look pro-gay to mask the severe drawbacks of the legislation or the fact that it doesn't have any LGBT-based rights," Lal told ABC/Univision.

"Trying to push this as an LGBT positive bill is actually false because there has been a lot of push behind the scenes to make sure gay couples are exclude."

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