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Some Democrats Back Same-Sex Amendment To Immigration Bill

Some Democrats want to amend the immigration bill before the Senate to allow foreign-born same-sex spouses of Americans to qualify for green cards.
Jason Reed
Some Democrats want to amend the immigration bill before the Senate to allow foreign-born same-sex spouses of Americans to qualify for green cards.

The immigration overhaul bill before the Senate would provide, among other things, more visas for migrant farm workers and high-tech workers, and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

One thing it would not provide is help for same-sex couples in which one partner is an American and one foreign-born. For heterosexual couples, a foreign-born spouse automatically qualifies for a green card and many of the benefits of citizenship. Not so with gay and lesbian couples.

Some Democrats hope to change that with an amendment.

What's At Stake

On a perfect spring evening in a suburban Maryland park, Liora Moriel and Susan Kirshner are watching their 9-year-old twins at baseball practice.

Moriel was born in Israel 64 years ago and would like to retire in the not too distant future from her teaching job at the University of Maryland. But she has a temporary visa, not a green card. Kirshner, her partner of 27 years and a federal employee, says her benefits don't cover Moriel.

"For us, the issue is largely going to focus around Liora's ability to retire and maintain the kinds of social services that she will need as a retired person, even though she's been living and working in this country and contributing and paying taxes — that's all at stake," Kirshner says. "Our ability to stay here together as a family is in jeopardy if this bill doesn't pass."

The bill is actually an amendment to the immigration overhaul that has been proposed by the so-called Gang of Eight senators — four Republicans and four Democrats.

Steve Ralls of the group Immigration Equality says it would give same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals.

"As most people understand, when an American citizen marries a spouse from abroad, that spouse is then eligible for a green card here in the United States," Ralls says. "For gay and lesbian couples, that option is not available. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government has been unable to confer immigration benefits to the partners of American citizens."

But the Defense of Marriage Act is before the Supreme Court, and the issue could become moot if the justices decide to overturn the law. Backers of the amendment are unwilling, however, to place their bets on the court ruling in their favor.

Immigration Equality estimates some 35,000 to 40,000 gay and lesbian couples are affected.

'Hard Enough To Do As Is'

But support for the amendment is tenuous. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes it. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and Gang of Eight member, says approving the amendment could spell doom for the entire immigration bill.

"This issue is so complicated. The immigration issue has so many land mines and pitfalls that it's going to be hard enough to do as is," he told the website Buzzfeed in February. "I think if that issue becomes the central issue in the debate, it's just going to make it harder to get it done because there's going to be a lot of strong feelings about it on both sides."

House Republicans, already balking at the immigration measure, are thought to be even less likely to support it if it confers rights to same-sex couples. Backers of the amendment also worry that not all Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are onboard.

Still, Moriel says she's optimistic.

"Both of us were quite active in the gay-rights movement in Israel, and we always said that, you know, the United States was our beacon," she says. "I think all over the world, people think that way and to then realize that Israel is far ahead of the United States on this issue in sexuality, it's quite strange."

Amendment backers will be closely watching the Senate Judiciary Committee to see whether Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., formally files the measure for consideration by Tuesday afternoon's deadline.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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