When President Barack Obama unveiled his blueprint for immigration reform last week, he largely endorsed the Senate’s approach, with a slight twist: Under Obama’s plan, same-sex couples would be entitled to the same immigration rights as heterosexual couples.
The difference caught many social conservatives off-guard, some of whom are now openly wondering why, just when the stars were aligning for comprehensive immigration reform, Obama would throw a monkey wrench into the mix.
“He is basically pandering to the community,” said Tibi Ellis, a conservative Nevada lobbyist and advocate for immigration reform. “The argument is not about gender, marriage, or anything. The argument is about how do we revise our current immigration system.” Since the 2012 election, the immigration reform movement has unprecedented support, thanks to Latino voter turnout. The growing cohort pays close attention to where lawmakers stand on immigration — and in 2012, overwhelmingly supported liberal Democrats over conservative Republicans.
Republican lawmakers such as Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who in the past had exclusively favored enforcement as a solution to illegal immigration, are now vocal in their support for a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country, unauthorized, as children. Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is on board. But those same Republicans are not leaping to endorse the idea of extending immigration benefits to same-sex couples.
“It’s interesting,” Heller said when asked about the provision, adding that he was looking forward to a detailed discussion on many specific points of the immigration reform bill as it was drafted.
Where Heller is non-committal, other Republicans say the same-sex marriage provision would be a deal-breaker.
“Which is more important, LGBT or border security?” Sen. John McCain, one of four Republican members of a bipartisan group of Senators who unveiled their own immigration framework last week, at a Politico breakfast. “If you’re going to load (immigration reform) up with social issues, that is the best way to derail it, in my view.”
Republicans working toward an immigration framework do not seem amenable to the idea either.
“I would hope that if the president does try to insert himself (into the immigration discussion), he does so with the purpose of trying to reach a bipartisan solution,” said Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who is working with the House bipartisan group on immigration. “I’ve yet to see anything that the president has put forward that has been, frankly, constructive.”
The idea that Obama, who oversaw the end of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and declared himself to be in favor of legalizing gay marriage in the run-up to the 2012 campaign, is relatively unsurprising. In the past several months, the Department of Homeland Security has also taken steps to recognize same-sex couples as “family relationships” when determining whether to deport or use administrative discretion in deportation cases. Obama’s immigration would make same-sex relationships equal to heterosexual relationships for family-based visas as well. But social conservatives who have resisted legalizing gay marriage say giving legal recognition to same-sex couples in the immigration context would be just as incendiary.
Several conservative, pro-immigration religious groups — which have sway with social conservatives in Congress — object to Obama’s inclusion of same-sex couples as beneficiaries under immigration reform law. “It’s like adding fuel to a fire. Immigration itself can be divisive and emotional; you add another national issue that is equally emotional and divisive and it’s a combustible mix,” said Kevin Appleby, director of immigration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of several religious groups that sent a letter to the White House declaring their opposition last week. “We want an immigration bill, and this will make it harder if not impossible to get an immigration bill.”
For conservatives, there’s also a constituent factor to consider: While most registered voters now favor legalizing same-sex marriage, the majority of registered Republican voters still do not.
But not all conservative Republicans are of the same mind. “I support Obama’s plan. A person’s personal choices are their own, who they live with, who they love … let people live their lives,” said Rene Cantu, a Nevada Republican who directs the Latin Chamber of Commerce’s Community Foundation and considers himself a religious conservative. “When I look at Jesus’ teachings, I don’t think he explicitly outlined a homophobic agenda in the four gospels. If some conservatives are hung up on that — whatever, get over it.” Progressives supporting Obama’s immigration proposal, and its nod to same-sex couples, are banking on there being a healthy plurality of Republicans like Cantu in the party.
“Politically, this will be most concerning to extreme conservatives, and I would say, those people probably aren’t going to support a comprehensive reform bill anyway,” said Andres Ramirez, a Democratic consultant and immigration reform advocate from Las Vegas.
And even if they aren’t sure of there being enough Republican votes, they are willing to have a public standoff to ferret them out.
“You can’t take away everything you think the other side won’t vote on,” said Laura Martin, a spokeswoman for Progressive Leadership Action Nevada and the Stonewall Democrats of Southern Nevada. “You shouldn’t be playing nice when people’s lives and their families are on the line. We look forward to having this conversation — or this fight — when it comes down to it.”
Thus far, however, Obama has not been pressing the point too forcefully. He left out any mention of same-sex couples in his immigration speech in Las Vegas last week, during which he also indicated he would defer to the congressional process — unless it starts to falter.
“The question is: How hard is the president going to push?” said David Damore, a professor of political science at UNLV who analyzes polling on immigration for Latino Decisions. “When push comes to shove, if Republicans just refuse on this, you could see (Obama) saying ‘OK, we’ll address this later.’”
Damore also pointed out that same-sex marriage rights are gaining steam — and may even be endorsed by a Supreme Court ruling this year on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which sets the federal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. That ruling could obviate the debate over whether to extend immigration rights to same-sex couples.
Still, those caught between the fight for immigrants rights and gay rights know that resolving the two issues in one immigration bill will be difficult.
Rafael Lopez of Las Vegas is both gay and undocumented. He isn’t yet married — but for him, achieving comprehensive immigration reform and equal marriage rights for homosexual couples are both intensely personal causes.
Lopez is pretty sure that gay marriage is a harder nut to crack than immigration. But even after years of living in the shadows, the 23-year-old has no compunctions about bringing same-sex couples under the umbrella of immigration reform.
“Everyone’s on board with immigration reform — even the Republicans are jumping on board ... and if they want to survive politically, they have to do something,” Lopez said. “I don’t know to what extent we have power over them right now, but it seems like there’s a chance. I think there’s a shot. So, why not? Let’s just try it.”