Why gay marriage advocates feel cheated by the immigration bill

The legislation has put Democrats in a tough spot

Protesters ask Sen. Marco Rubio to stop opposing the inclusion of LGBT families in the immigration reform on May 22.
(Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On Tuesday night, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a comprehensive immigration reform bill by a vote of 13-5, sending it to the full Senate for what is likely to be a long and contentious debate.

Not included in the bill: An amendment that would allow American citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for green cards, just like straight couples can.

According to BuzzFeed, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who introduced the amendment, gave up the fight at the last minute, saying: "It is with a heavy heart… I will withhold the Leahy Amendment 7 at this point."

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Not that this was unexpected. In April, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has served as the public face of the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators who put the bill together, warned Democrats that adding the amendment would "virtually guarantee that it won't pass" due to Republican opposition.

Republicans proved Rubio right, forcing Leahy to stand down and release this statement:

When I read news stories of a Republican not on this committee threaten that my anti-discrimination amendment would kill the bill, I hoped it was just partisan rhetoric on talk radio but now I understand that even the supportive Republicans on this committee will also walk away from this comprehensive bill if we address this flaw in our immigration system. [Patrick Leahy]

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a prominent member of the Gang of Eight, was one of the strongest opponents of the amendment, telling his colleagues, "You've got me on immigration; you don't have me on marriage."

Several Democratic senators, including California's Dianne Feinstein, New York's Chuck Schumer, and Minnesota's Al Franken, held their noses while voting the amendment down. "It's wrong to discriminate against people, but I do not want the LGBT people who would be hurt by this bill not passing, this whole bill not passing, to be hurt by this falling apart," Franken said, according to BuzzFeed.

Democrats were in a difficult position, having long pushed for a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Still, most gay rights advocates weren't happy with what happened. "Today it became clear that our so-called 'friends' don't have the courage or the spine to stand up for what's right," Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, co-director of GetEQUAL, told The Washington Post.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, condemned the Republicans in the Gang of Eight for threatening to "derail the entire immigration bill to appease a small but vocal group of anti-gay social conservatives that will do anything to stop progress for lesbian and gay couples."

Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan points out the difficulties same-sex couples face under current immigration rules:

The reform tries to include everyone trapped in immigration hell or limbo (and sometimes, trust me, purgatory), but it explicitly excludes only one group of people: Gay and lesbian Americans who have taken up the responsibilities of civil marriage.

These people are not immigrants; they are American citizens forced to choose between their country and their spouse. No heterosexual would see that exclusion as anything other than what it is: The American government's persecution of its own citizens, even as it seeks to ease the plight of its resident non-citizens. And breaking up families or forcing them to move abroad to stay together is more than discrimination. It's cruelty. [The Dish]

Meghan Austin is one of the people who will be affected by the failed amendment. "My partner needs a green card now," she wrote on the Immigration Equality Fund's blog. "If I were straight, she would already have one."

"A few weeks ago, Senator Schumer looked me in the eye and told me that he would stand with our families in committee. Well, today he broke that promise. Personally, I am disgusted by his lack of courage and leadership."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to bring the broader legislation to the Senate floor early next month.