BY ALFONSO CHARDY and STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Gay activists gathered Wednesday in front of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s Doral office to protest the Senate Judiciary Committee’s failure to include undocumented gay foreign nationals in a bipartisan immigration reform bill the panel approved late Tuesday.
While the number of protesters at the corner of Northwest 87th Avenue and 36th Street was relatively small, about 30, their action presaged potential trouble for the controversial bill that would legalize more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
The 13-5 vote in the committee almost didn’t happen after some Republican senators indicated they might withdraw support for the bill if Democrats pressed their bid to attach the gay amendment to the proposal.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the Republicans who wrote the bill, said the coalition that assembled the bill would fall apart if same-sex couples were included.
“It would certainly mean that this bill would not move forward,” Flake told the panel Tuesday.
While Democrats ultimately caved in and withdrew the amendment, the action angered gay activists across the nation. They vowed to mount a national lobbying campaign to pressure politicians to add a gay immigration clause when the bill comes up for debate on the Senate floor after the Memorial Day recess.
Whether the tug-of-war might kill the immigration reform bill remains to be seen. But what happened Tuesday night in the Senate Judiciary Committee may indicate that gay immigration has emerged as a potentially pivotal issue for the fate of the bill and a harbinger of future epic battles in Congress over whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants deserve recognition as a separate class.
Undocumented LGBT immigrants, as individuals, would receive legal status like any other foreign national without papers if the bill becomes law.
But what gay activists want is an amendment that would compel federal immigration authorities to allow U.S. citizens and legal residents who are gay to file petitions for their undocumented partners so they can get green cards.
As currently written, the bill does not change immigration law that gives petition power only to married heterosexual couples.
“I myself am gay and I’m in a relationship with someone who is about to become a U.S. citizen and he can’t petition for me,” said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, a 27-year-old immigrant from Brazil who arrived in the U.S. when he was 14.
Sousa-Rodriguez was one of the organizers of Wednesday’s protest in front of Rubio’s office. Rubio is one of the Republican senators in the so-called Gang of Eight who drafted the immigration reform bill approved late Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos said Wednesday that adding a gay-partners component to the bill would likely kill it.
"Senator Rubio and others have noted the reality here," Burgos said. "Approving this immigration reform legislation into law will be difficult enough as it is and, if this measure is adopted, it will virtually guarantee that the bill won't pass and that the coalition that helped put it together will fall apart."
The Rubio protest was organized by several immigration and gay activist groups including GetEQUAL, a national organization that advocates for the full equality of LGBT people.
The bill would grant provisional legal status to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country prior to Dec. 31, 2011, and have no serious criminal records. Then they have to wait 10 years to apply for green cards after paying fees, penalties and unpaid taxes.
Though the bill survived several attempts in the committee to reshape it, it almost got derailed Tuesday night when the gay issue arose.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the committee late Tuesday that he had decided to withdrew the gay immigration amendment to prevent the collapse of the bill.
While Democrats reluctantly withdrew the amendment, they also believe that the issue will become moot if the Supreme Court in June throws out a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prohibits the U.S. government from granting federal benefits to married same-sex couples.