Exclusive: Religious Leaders for Immigration Equality for Gay and Lesbian Couples

Immigration Equality, an advocacy group that has pushed for immigration reform, and specifically the Uniting American Families Act, which would equal grant citizenship status for the undocumented partners of U.S. citizens who are gay or lesbian, is compiling a large number of  religious leaders, organizations, and denominations, to sign on to a letter supporting the legislation.

As I reported last year, UAFA would correct a glaring inequality in our current immigration law:

there are 36,000 bi-national couples in the United States—same-sex couples in which one is a US citizen and the other faces possible deportation if a partner or spouse cannot sponsor them for citizenship—and about half of those couples have children. In other words, while heterosexuals currently can sponsor their undocumented spouses for citizenship, thousands of gay and lesbian couples face the possibility of their families being separated unless the UAFA becomes law.

According to Steve Ralls, director of communications for Immigration Equality, the group will send the letter to members of Congress after the legislation is reintroduced, probably in April. Ralls said the group anticipates that Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) will introduce it in the House and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in the Senate. Nadler told me last year he considered the current state of the law “cruelty.

The letter reads, in part:

Of the many great injustices in this broken immigration system, family separation is one of the most egregious. Family is the bedrock of any society and is critical in the development of healthy individuals and strong communities. Immigration policies should make expeditious family reunification a top priority and should include all families as part of that foundation. For us, this is a clear matter of simple justice.

UAFA has long been a flashpoint for anti-gay religious groups, even ones who claim to support immigration reform. In 2009, after Leahy introduced UAFA in the last Congress, it ignited what Peter Laarman called here a “sex panic.” Last year, a group calling itself Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform came out in support of an immigration reform package, but characterized inclusion of UAFA in any bill a dealbreaker, going so far as to threaten to withdraw their support for the comprehensive reform they otherwise called vital if it also included equality for gays and lesbians. 

Frequently politicians and pundits point to large coalitions like the Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which includes leadership from the Catholic Church and the National Association of Evangelicals, as the sole barometer of what “people of faith” want. But the signatories to the Immigration Equality letter — 350 and counting — demonstrate how the leadership of mainline denominations, Jewish groups, Catholic advocacy groups, and individual clergy offer a pro-equality position. In particular, the inclusion of Catholic organizations like Catholics for Equality and Call to Action demonstrates the split between the church hierarchy and rank-and-file Catholics on the issue.

Republicans are against immigration reform, even if some version of it has the support of conservative religious groups. As Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, noted last year, the support of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and various evangelical groups for immigration reform (without UAFA) did not move a single Republican in favor of reform. The failure of evangelicals to alter the outcome of either Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal (which they opposed) or the passage of the DREAM Act (which failed despite evangelical support) at the end of the last Congressional session demonstrates that their influence has its limits.

In the current Republican-controlled House, conservative, anti-gay religious groups have more sway than in the last. They support efforts like that of the Republican leadership to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, despite the Obama administration’s decision not to do so. Although Immigration Equality’s faith coalition takes no position on DOMA, repeal of that law would positively impact same-sex couples living in states which recognize marriages performed outside the state or outside the country. Still, though, Ralls noted that passage of UAFA would provide an “immediate non-judicial solution that would help the most number of families.”

Ralls acknowledged that “this Congress presents a steeper hill to climb,” but that “we’re hopeful that other coalitions like the faith coalition will help us deepen support among lawmakers to built the support for the votes we need to go forward.” I think that’s optimistic for the current Congress, but the public, faithy statements of support are essential nonetheless.