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Gay Rights Groups: Don’t Leave Us Out of Immigration Bills

Frances Herbert, right, and her wife, Takako Ueda, pose for photos with their dog, Little Bear, at their home in Dummerston, Vt., Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011.

Frances Herbert, right, and her wife, Takako Ueda, pose for photos with their dog, Little Bear, at their home in Dummerston, Vt., Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. Federal immigration authorities have told Ueda she needs to leave the United States for her native Japan by Dec. 31, a move that would split up a lesbian couple who've been together more than a decade and who married under Vermont law in April. (Matthew Cavanaugh/AP)

Some gay rights groups in Illinois are now applying their own political pressure in the fight to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, as they worry a final deal could leave same-sex couples in the lurch.

The political difficulty of recognizing same-sex couples in U.S. immigration law was on display Monday, when U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez, a liberal Chicago Democrat, and Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and former GOP vice presidential nominee, made stops in Chicago to plug their ideas for an immigration overhaul in the House.

Bipartisanship and compromise were the buzzwords of the day, until someone in the audience at a downtown luncheon asked whether Gutierrez thought the immigration changes would recognize same-sex relationships.

“And I will fight for it, but I do not believe it will be in a bill,” Gutierrez said, adding that he supported the idea, but was concerned about its ability to gain support in Congress.

After a long pause, Ryan, who opposes same-sex marriage, chimed in.

“So I’m gonna stick with just the immigration stuff here,” he said, giving a nervous laugh.

The exchange illustrates the political challenge of including so-called bi-national same-sex couples in an immigration overhaul, particularly in the GOP-led House of Representatives, where cobbling together bipartisan support for an immigration bill is already a tall order, even without tossing in the hot-button issue of gay rights.

But some activists in Chicago say recognition for same-sex couples must be included. They were surprised that Gutierrez seemed to declare the idea dead on arrival, even before a House bill has been introduced.

Recognition in U.S. immigration law would mean a same-sex relationship could be grounds to grant legal status to a foreign spouse, or to prevent their deportation. It could also help gay foreign couples who are working in the U.S. on visas.

Those laws currently apply only to heterosexual couples because federal law defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, though the U.S. Supreme Court is now reviewing the issue.

That provision could have a big impact on the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender immigrants who are now in the U.S. illegally – about 267,000 people, according to an estimate from the Williams Institute, a think tank that researches LGBT legal issues.

Gutierrez’s political calculus doesn’t sit well Julio Rodriguez. He chairs the LGBTQ Immigration Rights Coalition of Chicago, which advocates for gay rights in immigration law.

“You can’t pick and choose when you wanna be our allies,” Rodriguez said, adding that full recognition for same-sex couples is the right thing to do, regardless of political difficulties.

“We helped elect many of those folks who are sitting in Congress that are our allies,” he said. “We’ve provided financial resources, we’ve provided people on the ground, and we expect a return on that investment.”

Recognition for same-sex couples is not included in the sweeping immigration overhaul bill introduced in the Democrat-controlled Senate last week, though gay rights activists say they’re lobbying Illinois’ Senators to have it included via a later amendment.

But Gutierrez’s suggestion that it may not be included in a House version came as news to some of his allies in Chicago’s gay rights community.

“That is very surprising to me,” said Jane Merrill, with the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center on Chicago’s North Side. “Though the bi-national same-sex couple provision was on in there, there was a lot of positive feeling that it would be.”

Passing immigration reform and recognizing same-sex couples in immigration law shouldn't be mutually exclusive, Merrill said.

But Randy Hannig, Director of Public Policy at Equality Illinois, suggested his group’s lobbying efforts will remain focused on the Senate for the time being.

“We realize just how hard a lot of our issues [will] be to make it through both chambers before we make it to the president’s desk,” Hannig said. “I guess for lack of a better term, we’re definitely keeping it real.”

Gutierrez, for his part, said in an interview with WBEZ on Tuesday he wants to include same-sex couples in an immigration overhaul. He pointed to his longtime support of gay rights, though in the past, he’s gone back on forth on how hard to push for them when it comes to his trademark issue of immigration reform.

Now, as one of the key Democrats working to navigate a massive immigration overhaul through the GOP-led House, Guiterrez said he’s simply being realistic when he tells his allies in the gay rights movement that the votes aren’t there.

“You shouldn’t pander,” he said. “You shouldn’t raise false expectations. That’s not what I expect from a friend and an ally.”

Gutierrez said he hopes to introduce the House immigration overhaul bill he’s drafting with Rep. Ryan in a few weeks. But the whole question could be moot by the end of June, when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the federal definition of marriage.