SAN FRANCISCO — Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco warned that the inclusion of same-sex couples in a landmark immigration-reform bill threatened passage of legislation long advocated by the U.S. bishops.
“It is introducing an extraneous issue into this legislation,” Archbishop Cordileone, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, told the Register during a May 16 interview.
“This is a rare moment of national unity: Both parties want to be proactive in doing something about immigration reform. Now, for political motives, they want to introduce a separate political agenda, and that would be a tragedy.”
Archbishop Cordileone registered the U.S. bishops’ concerns after Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced two separate amendments May 7 designed to incorporate same-sex couples into the immigration bill — the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act” — hammered out by a bipartisan group of senators known as the “gang of eight.”
Two GOP members of the “gang of eight,” Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, have already signaled that their proposed legislation would be derailed by efforts to extend the same rights to same-sex couples that their bill now offers heterosexual couples.
“If that issue is injected into this bill, this bill will fail. It will not have the support. It will not have my support," Rubio stated during an April radio interview.
Yet despite such warnings, Leahy has pushed forward with the amendments that some critics describe as “poison” that will doom the bill’s passage.
“For immigration reform to be truly comprehensive, it must include protections for all families,” Leahy said in a statement after he introduced the amendments. “We must end the discrimination that gay and lesbian families face in our immigration law.”
One of Leahy’s amendments would exempt immigration law from the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage, for the purposes of federal law, as a union of a man and a woman. The constitutionality of DOMA is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the high court is expected to issue a ruling by late June. However, that ruling would come well after the Memorial Day recess, the deadline for the Judiciary Committee to finish its work on the bill.
The second Leahy amendment would implement the Uniting American Families Act, designed to allow same-sex couples to petition for legal status for foreign-born partners.
The U.S. bishops have resisted all efforts to include same-sex unions in any federal legislation dealing with the rights and benefits of married couples, fearing that it would promote the redefinition of marriage and establish legal precedent for same-sex “marriage.”
Leahy’s amendments prompted a group of Catholic and Christian leaders to write a letter urging the Vermont senator to back off from his campaign to include same-sex couples in the proposed legislation.
Signed by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who is spearheading the Church’s advocacy for immigration reform, the letter cautioned that “‘same-sex partner’ provisions, such as those included in the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), would be strongly opposed by many in our communities who would be otherwise sympathetic or even enthusiastic about the benefits of immigration reform.”
During the May 16 interview, Archbishop Cordileone said that “introducing same-sex couples [into the immigration-reform bill] would be opening the door to acknowledging these types of unions across the country and a step forward for those who want to redefine marriage.”
The U.S. bishops have been at the forefront of immigration-reform efforts for decades, and they are hopeful that millions of undocumented workers, many of them Catholics, will now have the chance to work in the country legally and begin the path to citizenship.
But the gang of eight’s legislation has attracted more than 300 proposed amendments, and some — like proposals that would make the completion of border-security provisions, including 700 miles of fencing, the trigger for the legalization process — are opposed by the USCCB.
Kevin Appleby, the director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Migration, acknowledged during a May 17 interview that the conference was concerned about Leahy’s amendments, and he could not predict whether they would be included in the final bill.
“There is a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ action going on. A lot of folks are urging Sen. Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.] and Sen. [Dick] Durbin [of Illinois] not to support the amendments,” said Appleby, who added that Sen. Diane Fienstein, D-Calif., has “shown some reservations. She could surprise us.”
He noted that the USCCB was also concerned about other issues, such as “whether the path to citizenship was generous enough. The income and employment requirements for getting a green card are very tough.”
Further, the U.S. bishops are disappointed that the proposed legislation placed more priority on high-skilled, educated immigrants — a key concern in regions of the country like Silicon Valley, where an engineer shortage has pushed jobs overseas.
At present, family ties account for about 75% of green-card approvals, said Appleby. The proposed bill would introduce “a hybrid system eliminating some of the family system and incorporating more of the merit system.”
Archbishop Cordileone echoed that concern during an interview, arguing that “strong families are also important for the economy.”
California is home to an estimated 2 million undocumented workers, most of whom are Hispanic. The San Francisco archbishop said that the legal status offered in the proposed bill would allow family members to “move back and forth between the U.S. and their home country.”
He acknowledged, however, that the bishops “needed to do a better job” of explaining their stance on immigration reform, and he clarified that the USCCB was not ignoring the importance of border security or advocating that undocumented workers be given a preference over immigrants who had already applied legally to enter the country.
“I have asked myself, ‘What is the benchmark for security? One of our principles is that nations have the right to protect our borders.’ But people have a right to immigrate when they have legitimate needs. We can’t wait until the border is fully secured because it never may be,” said the archbishop.
While public-opinion polls confirm a surge in support for a breakthrough in immigration reform, the likelihood that Congress will ultimately pass the legislation is far from certain. As the gang of eight’s bill moves through the Senate, the House is struggling to work out its own bipartisan effort, with several Republican House members threatening to walk away from the negotiations.
The USCCB’s Appleby predicts that the House bill will be “to the right of the Senate’s” — given GOP representatives’ concerns about border security and a streamlined path to citizenship for undocumented workers who did not enter the country legally.
GOP leaders assert that border security must be a priority, in part, because past efforts to provide asylum prompted more undocumented workers to cross the border.
However, Appleby argued that the U.S. failed in the past to effectively address the problem of undocumented workers because “we have a ‘keep out’ sign at the border and ‘help wanted’ sign at the workplace.”
“They didn’t enforce the employer-sanction piece, so people who hired undocumented workers were not penalized,” he said.
For now, GOP leaders like Rubio have helped to break the political stalemate that has left many undocumented workers in legal limbo.
In the weeks ahead, the bishops’ conference will take full advantage of this long-awaited opportunity and lobby on both sides of the political spectrum to advance its position on same-sex unions and family reunification, among other issues.
“We think the system is broken. We want to bring people out of the shadows and create a system of having everyone play by the same rules,” said Appleby. “That is our strategy.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.