Liberal Democratic Senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced their "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act" on September 29. Of course its centerpiece is a "pathway" to citizenship for the "undocumented," which critics would call amnesty for illegals. It also includes a "Uniting American Families Act" (UAFA) allowing "permanent partners" of U.S. citizens, which seems to mean same-sex couples, to obtain U.S. residency.
Speaking for the Catholic bishops, who typically support liberalized immigration, Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City reportedly wrote Senator Menendez explaining "that a controversial provision, which would confer marriage-like immigration benefits to same-sex couples," would "preclude the U.S. bishops from supporting" it as introduced. Bishop Wester noted that the same-sex provision "in a comprehensive immigration reform bill will make it far more difficult to achieve the compromise that will be needed in order to enact a fair and balanced comprehensive immigration reform bill." Last year, Wester warned against similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would "erode the institution of marriage and family by according marriage-like immigration benefits to same sex relationships, a position that is contrary to the very nature of marriage which pre-dates the Church and the state."
Another liberalized immigration proponent, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, also warned against the same-sex provision. "That's the sad political reality," he lamented to Episcopal News Service. "Politically in Washington it has been very difficult to engage Republicans and conservative Democrats on the issue of immigration reform." Rodriguez and his group for Hispanic evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage. "Finally we were able to acquire support and galvanize the white evangelical community in support of immigration reform and that coalition stands to be jeopardized if those agenda items are morphed together."
But Church World Service, the relief arm of the National Council of Churches, is full throttle enthusiastic about the Leahy/Menendez legislation, despite its provision for same-sex couples. "This new legislation is a welcome contrast to controversial immigration proposals in Arizona and elsewhere," a church relief official asserted. "This legislation offers true solutions that will put our immigration system back on track and benefit the United States as a whole." The Church World Service spokesman urged others senators to cosponsor, declaring: "We applaud the leadership exhibited by Senators Menendez and Leahy in introducing this bill." Although all but a few of the National Council of Churches over 30 member denominations oppose same-sex marriage, its relief agency recognized no concerns about UAFA. One website lists Church World Service as a specific supporter of the same-sex partner provision.
One of the few denominations supporting UAFA is, of course, the Episcopal Church, whose news service offered a full virtual editorial for the Leahy/Menendez initiative for same sex couples. Episcopal News Service specifically spotlighted a Washington, D.C. Episcopal priest who is married, under D.C. law, to a same-sex Filipino doctoral student struggling with his visa status. "If same-sex marriages were recognized federally this would be a nonissue," the Filipino student opined. "Just like anybody else, [my partner] would be able to sponsor me."
Episcopal News Service also highlighted a Chicago Episcopal priest with an immigrant same sex partner similarly on a student visa. "I believe we [gays and lesbians] will be sacrificed in the negotiations," the priest complained about the likely outcome of any final immigration legislation. "How can the majority legislate the rights for a minority? It's not fair. It's not just. I love this country… but it's discouraging."
Naturally, the Episcopal Church has an official policy statement demanding "immigration equality" for same-sex partners, ratified at the denomination's General Convention last year. That resolution denounced as an "outrageous injustice" the lack of recognition by federal immigration law for same-sex couples, when "similarly situated heterosexual immigrants are free to marry at any time." Presciently, the Episcopalians even specifically endorsed the Uniting American Families Act, of which the Leahy/Menendez legislation is the latest incarnation. "By supporting this civil rights legislation, the Episcopal Church can add a Christian voice to those demanding that all citizens be treated equally under U.S. immigration laws," the Episcopal resolution insisted.
Earlier this year, a United Methodist lobbyist spoke at a press conference for the same-sex partners immigration initiative. "Just as Jesus did not set any preconditions on identifying himself with, and loving, the sojourner, so too does he call all who claim to follow him to love and welcome the sojourner without moral preconditions," said Bill Mefford of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. "To demand the right to prophetically challenge the nation to incorporate hospitality into our immigration policy, but then to work to exclude some people based on their sexual orientation, is to lose the moral basis for making that prophetic challenge."
Apparently the Quakers and Unitarian Universalists have also joined with the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist lobby, along with the United Church of Christ, for federal recognition of same-sex partners in immigration law. Liberalized immigration legislation has virtually no chance of passage in this Congress and probably even less in the next Congress. So the Leahy/Menendez legislation is likely just a bit of flag waving for the moment. But "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" supporters have touted backing from religious groups, not just eccentric Episcopalians but also Catholic bishops and groups like the National Association of Evangelicals. The push for same-sex couples in federal immigration legislation will strain that ostensibly wide coalition.