Leahy’s Immigration Provision Sows Sex Panic Among Key Religious Groups

As Julia Preston reported in the New York Times a week ago, the powerful chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has set off a huge and mainly behind-the-scenes panic among certain religious supporters of so-called comprehensive immigration reform. Bishop John Wester, who heads the Catholic bishops’ Committee on Migration, wrote to the Congressional committee chairs who are beginning to work on immigration that Leahy’s Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) would “erode the institution of marriage and family.”

The bishops’ staff director for immigration policy added that “the last thing the national immigration debate needs is another politically divisive issue added to the mix.”

And the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an Evangelical group, called Leahy’s measure a “slap in the face” of right-thinking immigration advocates like himself.

Rev. Rodriguez, a noted homophobe, is also part of a network including Jim Wallis that calls itself Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. These folks held a press briefing this week calling upon the President to lend his support to compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform and announcing the creation of a new website (www.faithandimmigration.org) addressing reform from a faith perspective.

Wallis himself claims to have no opinion in respect to Leahy’s measure, which is good. But the strong negative reaction of the crucial Catholic bishops suggests that same-sex love must remain The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, lest immigration reform now founder again after years of struggle and hope.

My question: Why all the hysteria?

Leahy’s legislation, originally introduced in February with 12 Senate co-sponsors, is no back door effort to legitimate gay marriage. All it would do is allow American citizens to sponsor same-sex “permanent partners” in applying for legal residency in the United States. Under current law, a citizen is permitted to sponsor his or her spouse; Leahy’s measure would extend this same right to same-sex couples by adding the words “or permanent partner” to sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act that apply to married couples. The same penalties for fraud would apply as currently apply to straight people who claim to be married to citizens: gay bi-national couples would be required to provide proof that they meet the definition of “permanent partners” contained in the bill. Given the degree of residual homophobia in the culture and in the appropriately-named ICE agency, you can bet that the “permanent” test will actually be considerably more rigorous for same-sex applicants than for “legally married – five minutes ago” couples.

Sixteen other countries already recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes, including Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Israel, South Africa, Sweden, and the UK. It is estimated that 36,000 U.S.-based couples would be able to stay together if Leahy’s provision were enacted. If there is no change in the law, the non-citizen partner in these couples will eventually need to leave, or else the U.S. citizen will be forced to emigrate.

This issue is somewhat personal for me, in that one of the most difficult situations I ever faced as a parish minister in New York was working with a bi-national lesbian couple. I spent many hours trying to calm and console them as the day grew nearer for the Latin American partner to be forced to leave. The citizen partner was in no position to move to Argentina, so these two were staring into an abyss of despair.

I also know that my own brother’s life would have been very different had he not been able to sponsor U.S. citizenship for his Panamanian bride some three decades ago. But was their love any more true and worthy than the love of the same-sex women I counseled in New York? Were they more deserving of the right to stay together? Much as I love my brother and his family, I don’t think so. I guess what I find most obnoxious about all of this religious fussing and fulminating over the Leahy provision is the suggestion that if Leahy stands his ground, it will be he and not the other sponsors of immigration equality who have sabotaged the hopes for reform.

Is it not more accurate to say that the Catholic bishops and the Latino Evangelicals, by way of their panicked response to a relatively minor and clearly benign provision, will have sabotaged reform if it ends up going down that way?

I mean, really: how much real passion do these hierarchs and their spokespeople actually have for the estimated 13 million undocumented persons now cowering each day in fear of deportation—and cruelly exploited each day in fields and factories and restaurants and hotels and construction sites—if these allegedly passionate allies of the downtrodden immigrant are so willing to walk away from any version of reform that might also open the door to keeping a relatively few committed same-sex couples together?

And just how “comprehensive” will immigration reform be if it fails to address the special horror of loving, stable bi-national couples being torn apart because their love is not of the particular kind approved by these most reverend leaders?

I was taught to take seriously the words, “whom God hath joined together let no one put asunder.”

These days I think it’s almost funny to hear pundits wondering why so many Americans, including so many Catholics, are giving up on religion altogether. Could it be on account of blinkered morality and irrational antics like this? Gee, I don’t know: Could it?

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