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July 29, 2015

LGBT Immigrant Rights Gets Second Chance, Seven Weeks Later

Barely two months after ducking a politically difficult gay rights vote during the immigration debate, nearly two dozen Democratic senators jumped onto a letter urging Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to make changes that would permit gay Americans to sponsor their foreign spouses for green cards.

The letter, signed by 22 senators, was sent in response to last month’s Supreme Court decision to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Before the ruling, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., attempted to amend the bipartisan “gang of eight” immigration bill with a provision that would have allowed gay foreign spouses to get green cards.

But at the time Leahy offered it, even ardent gay rights supporters urged the chairman to withhold the proposal.

“This is the wrong moment,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said at the May 21 markup of the immigration bill. Fellow gang of eight member Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., similarly asked Leahy to abandon the effort, and both indicated they would have voted against Leahy to preserve the bipartisan nature of the underlying bill.

Now, apparently, the time is right, considering both Durbin and Schumer signed onto today’s letter. As long as the administration takes care of it on its own – which is probably ideal for gay rights supporters anyway given the immigration bill faces steep odds in the House.

“Too many of the estimated 36,000 bi-national LGBT couples in the United States lived in constant fear of separation, simply because the United States citizen was unable to sponsor their LGBT spouse for a green card. Now that Section 3 of DOMA has been ruled unconstitutional, not one more bi-national LGBT couple should have to experience this uncertainty,” the letter read.

The full letter from Democrats, led by Patty Murray of Washington:

Dear Secretary Napolitano:

In the United States v. Windsor case, the United States Supreme Court ruled Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. While this was a great day for equality and justice, there remains much work to correct the past injustices of this law. For too long, married bi-national LGBT couples were treated as second-class citizens by our federal government and were denied equal access to federal protections and benefits. In our immigration system, bi-national LGBT couples were forced to choose between the spouse they love and the country they love. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, Americans no longer must face this choice. However, the harsh reality of DOMA has already split apart thousands of loving and committed families. Today, we write to ask for your help in remedying these past actions and ensuring our immigration policies are swiftly changed to provide equal access to LGBT couples.

The Supreme Court’s decision was a moment of joy for loving, committed LGBT couples across America. But for many bi-national married LGBT couples this ruling was too late. Although thirteen states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples, bi-national families were needlessly torn apart under DOMA because the federal government did not recognize their marriage as valid. Too many of the estimated 36,000 bi-national LGBT couples in the United States lived in constant fear of separation, simply because the United States citizen was unable to sponsor their LGBT spouse for a green card. Now that Section 3 of DOMA has been ruled unconstitutional, not one more bi-national LGBT couple should have to experience this uncertainty.

Last week’s ruling is a major step forward in the civil rights and marriage equality movement. Immigration policy is clear that marriages are recognized as valid based on the place of celebration. Now that the Supreme Court has acted, we were pleased to see U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issue the first approval of a green card to an LGBT family in Florida. We urge you to swiftly make any further necessary administrative changes required to immediately implement the ruling across the Department. We also urge you to appoint an independent ombudsman for LGBT issues who reports directly to you, is available and accessible to the public, and is empowered to resolve complaints across agencies within the Department. We believe the ombudsman is necessary to address the inquiries from LGBT couples and resolve any problems these couples face, some with very complex situations requiring careful attention.

Every American should have the choice to marry who they love and live in the country they love. The Supreme Court has decided in favor of justice and equality – finally making this choice possible. We thank you for your leadership on this important issue and we urge you to act decisively and quickly to correct these past injustices. We look forward to hearing back from you about the actions your Department will take and timeline for these actions, to remedy past discrimination and ensure equal access in our immigration system for all bi-national LGBT couples. As your Department moves forward to correct the systematic and unconstitutional actions of the past, we stand ready to be your allies and partners in the Senate.

Besides Murray, Schumer, and Durbin, signatories included Tom Harkin of Iowa, Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, Dianne Feinstein of California, Barbara Boxer of California, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Mark Udall of Colorado, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Al Franken of Minnesota, Chris Coons of Delaware, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Like Durbin and Schumer, Feinstein and Franken also told Leahy he should not offer his amendment, with Feinstein arguing that the Supreme Court would likely render the question moot. Looks like she was mostly right.

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