House Democrats Prepare To “Dig In” On Protections For LGBT Immigrants

The president’s support will make their case easier.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

WASHINGTON — Invigorated by President Barack Obama’s proposal Tuesday to grant equal immigration privileges to same-sex couples as part of an immigration reform package, some congressional Democrats are preparing to push for such a provision to be added to the bipartisan Senate framework unveiled Monday.

“I think that, in general, the Democrats are going to fight very hard for that inclusion in the comprehensive immigration reform act,” Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat who has championed immigration reform inclusive of LGBT protections, said in an interview with BuzzFeed.

Republicans have already begun to dismiss the issue as a nonstarter: Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, among the Senate’s Gang of Eight on immigration, said sarcastically of the idea, “Yeah, I mean, why don’t we just put taxpayer-funded abortion in there and round it out?”

It could nevertheless enjoy some prominence, Honda said, because, for one, “the complexion of Congress is changing” and there are a greater number of LGBT lawmakers than ever before — including the first openly gay senator, Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

But this particular facet of immigration reform might have garnered scarce attention if not for the president’s public support, building off the theme of legal equality in his inaugural address — which has already begun to embolden House Democrats for a fight.

“I think it sets up the parameters for the debate,” Honda said.

The president’s stance will also grant House Democrats, perhaps more so than their Senate counterparts, a convenient excuse to pursue the issue further.

“The fact that this is the White House position will make House Democrats dig in more than if Obama embraced the Schumer/McCain package and basically told us fall in line,” a House Democratic aide said.

After the president delivered his immigration speech in Nevada on Tuesday, in which he unveiled the tenets of his proposal, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi applauded the president’s priorities — and paid explicit lip service to immigration reform that would include LGBT couples.

“His proposal seeks to keep LGBT couples together and ensures we attract the best and the brightest in science, technology, engineering, and math to our country,” Pelosi said. In the past, Pelosi has also expressed support for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus statement of principles, which includes protections for LGBT immigrants.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not mention the issue in his own statement praising the president.

Other Democratic senators were not so quiet, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chair of the judiciary committee, through which immigration legislation will need to pass. Leahy celebrated multiple parts of the bill, including “the assurance that every family, including binational gay and lesbian spouses, receives equal treatment under the law.”

“True reform must address all these issues,” Leahy added.

In 2011, Leahy sponsored the Uniting American Families Act in the Senate, which would have done what the president now wants to do. The House version, which was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, received support from more than 140 other lawmakers.

Neither bill came to a vote, but both measures unveiled a strong enough stable of support in each chamber for such a debate.

The House Democratic aide, explaining why this aspect of immigration reform might take hold among Democrats, noted, “Most of them … are on board with the Uniting American Families Act, which is a huge priority for the LGBT community, and this is really just an extension of that.”

But it’s early yet. Discussions about LGBT protections and other provisions in an immigration reform package will not take place in earnest until legislation has been crafted.

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