Bil Browning

Same-Sex Marriage Shouldn't Be the Focus of the Immigration Debate

Filed By Bil Browning | May 21, 2013 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: binational couples, Chuck Schumer, immigration reform, same-sex couples, UAFA

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The LGBT news has been chock full of articles and op-eds decrying Senator Chuck Schumer's reluctance to include same-sex couples in the current immigration reform package. Advocates insist that the right of binational couples to sponsor their foreign partners for citizenship is a must-have to get their blessing.

This is an extremely short-sighted and dangerous game that should shame the LGBT movement, but, unfortunately, it's become a rallying cry for some leaders. Once again, the needs of gay couples are being put ahead of the welfare of thousands of LGBT people.

The DOMA Dilemma

Congressional Republicans are, of course, up in arms over potentially including same-sex couples. They swear that the entire bipartisan reform package will be jeopardized as Republicans flee from what they perceive to be tacit endorsement of same-sex marriage.

While binational gay and lesbian couples certainly have their own problems and those should be addressed, it's worth remembering that the number of people directly hurt by current law is small. The current ban on same-sex couple recognition is rationalized by referencing the Defense of Marriage Act. Senator Patrick Leahy has even gone so far as to write an amendment that would provide a "DOMA Carve Out" exception for binational couples.

But the fate of DOMA currently rests at the feet of the Supreme Court. In a little over a month, the law could be struck down - and with it, most likely, would be the prohibition against recognizing legally wed gay and lesbian couples. By striking down DOMA, the court could change life dramatically for thousands of same-sex couples. Leahy's "carve-out" would only signal to the court that the legislative branch is perfectly capable of creating work arounds, completely changing, or outright repealing DOMA and therefore doesn't need the intervention of the court.

Many of the judges are known for their fear of legislating by fiat and the acknowledgement that marriage equality has made leaps and bounds forward without any judicial interference was brought up during oral arguments. If carve-outs or repeal is possible, why should the Supreme Court get involved in the political process?

The better strategy would have been to take this up in June after the Supreme Court rules instead of giving Republicans weeks to blame LGBT people for selfishly killing immigration reform and potentially giving pause to a victory in the courts.

The Most to Lose

Who has the most to lose if the lack of relationship recognition for same-sex couples brings down the immigration reform efforts? What if advocates succeed in getting it added and the bipartisan bill is brought to its knees by anti-gay Republicans? Who suffers?

Hundreds of thousands of undocumented LGBT people are counting on the much needed relief provided by the reforms - as are millions of heterosexual people. The Williams Institute estimates that there are 32,300 24,700* binational same-sex couples. The same study gives the total number of adult LGBT undocumented immigrants to be approximately 267,000.

These people are struggling to be recognized in a much more basic manner than the couples who will benefit from the carve out. They are going to detention centers and deported by the thousands for trying to raise their standard of living and provide better lives for their families.

Entire families are destroyed under our current immigration system. Binational couples know the pain that results from being thrust apart as the foreign partner is forced to return to their home country. They should sympathize more with families who are ripped apart - in some cases by draconian laws that have wrested undocumented mothers from their American-born children.

At what point do LGBT undocumented citizens - who are often too fearful to report bias crimes, discrimination, wage theft, employer abuse, or blackmail, and are routinely too afraid to seek basic medical care for fear of deportation - become as important as gay couples? When does the marriage bandwagon stop to let the average queer's needs take the reins? When do we stop weighing the needs of the few against the needs of the many and deciding in favor of giving the least amount of help we can offer?

Once again, the obsession with fighting for the rights of a tiny subset of our community has trampled the immediate needs of the vast majority. The marriage equality battle has officially jumped the shark.

Rethinking Priorities

The current bickering over the fate of gay and lesbian couples who have one foreign-born partner compared to the basic human needs of thousands of LGBT people is distasteful and unseemly. By pitting the two groups against each other, we look petty and overwhelmingly biased against the poor and most vulnerable if we insist on the explicit inclusion of a very small subset of our community instead.

Binational gay and lesbian couples have very real problems that need an immediate solution. Threatening to jeopardize relief for thousands of less fortunate queers isn't it.

* The number of estimated binational same-sex couples was revised to reflect new information from the Center for American Progress and the Williams Institute. The infographic below has been updated as well.

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