Obama Wants Same-Sex Immigration Reform, Congress Prefers to Just Argue About It Forever

via salon.com

Obama makes his announcement.
via salon.com

Yesterday, President Obama made the commonsense yet somehow still controversial announcement that when it comes to immigration, it’s important that “the United States treat same-sex couples the same as other families, meaning that people would be able to use their relationship as a basis to obtain a visa.” As a Canadian, I find it ridiculous that binational American same-sex couples still don’t have the same immigration rights as heterosexual ones. Under the Family Class of the Canadian Immigration System, a person has been able to sponsor a spouse, common-law, or conjugal partner for immigration without regard to the gender of his or her partner since 2002. Even in the UK, where same-sex marriage is still not legal, the border agency states that “the requirements and process for applying as an unmarried or same-sex partner are the same as those for a [heterosexual] partner but the documents you must provide will be different.” Australia became one of the first countries to consider a same-sex relationship as a valid reason for migration all the way back in 1985. You’d think Congress would be embarrassed to be lagging behind on this human rights issue, and would therefore want to utilize basic kindergarden skills such as cooperation and teamwork to get Obama’s same-sex couple immigration reforms made into law as soon as possible. Unfortunately, working together is not one of the strong-suits of the bipartisan government, and Congress, as usual, is divided.

Trying to understand why it’ll be such a struggle for Obama to pass immigration reform is confusing when right now, here in Canada, it’s hard to keep up with the speed at which the government is turning bills into laws. It seems every morning I wake up to an “exciting,” brand-new legal change to the country: No health care for refugees! No Navigable Waters Protection Act! Goodbye Native American treaty rights! Meanwhile in the U.S., Obama’s bills crawl slowly through the House and the Senate, dreaming of and praying for the day when they’ll be able to be real, grown-up laws! While Harper manufactures dozens of bills into laws at once, effectively ruining Canada with the efficiency of a top-rate assembly line, Obama’s ideas to improve America are endlessly debated, critiqued, poked and prodded. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Canada could certainly benefit from stepping back and slowing down; but it does make me wonder how long Americans separated from their same-sex foreign spouses will have to wait before they get some pretty basic human rights met.

via http://bigpicture.typepad.com

via http://bigpicture.typepad.com

Why is it so difficult to get a bill passed that would allow families to stay together and allow the US to retain residents who can contribute valuable things to the country? Well, although Democrats hold the Senate, the Senate immigration group, which is made of Republicans and Democrats has proposed immigration reform that, unlike Obama’s proposal, does not recognize the immigration rights of same-sex partners. However, some individual Democrat lawmakers are in favour of those rights and are telling American gay rights groups that binational same-sex couples will be included in a final draft of the immigration bill.

Unfortunately, good-old Republican John McCain, also a part of the Senate immigration group, is saying that this whole business of some Democrats wanting to give gay couples rights is a “red flag” and means bad things for the country. Most politicians in the Senate immigration group believe that before there is immigration reform, there needs to be additional border security and improved tracking of illegal immigrants. It wants to require immigrants who may be in the country illegally “to register with the government, pass criminal and national security background checks, pay fees and penalties as well as back taxes, and wait until existing immigration backlogs are cleared before getting in line for green cards.” Meanwhile in the White House, Obama wonders how long doing all of that is going to take. He doesn’t want to wait for the so-called perfect conditions set by the Senate immigration group before passing immigration reform. He said that the Senate’s pathway to immigration is too long, complicated, and out of reach for many people: “We all agree that these men and women have to earn their way to citizenship. But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must make clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.” If congress keeps on arguing over immigration, Obama has declared he will just write his own bill and insist that it’s voted on right away. Of course, with a government so divided, there’s no guarantee that it’ll pass.

And even if it is passed, it’s unclear how it will interact with the DOMA. As Olga explains in “Immigration Reform is a Queer & Trans* Human Rights Issue,” DOMA prevents cisgender, same-sex partners from sponsoring one-another for marriage-based immigration. Also,

“…domestic partnerships and civil unions are also not recognized. Perversely, the ban also excludes the spouses of queer refugees who have been resettled to the U.S. as a direct result of fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation.”

DOMA is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court and by the proposed Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) which would allow same-sex couples to side-step DOMA. Strangely, even though Obama has spoken out for same-sex immigration rights, it doesn’t seem like he’s including the UAFA, or anything similar, in his immigration reform plan. Is this because he doesn’t need to? If passed, will his immigration reform plan render DOMA obsolete? If America has two laws which contradict one another, which one gets to win?

The concept that same-sex couples shouldn’t have to go through something as life-altering as deportation when their straight counterparts are exempt from it seems like a no-brainer, especially when the President and the Department of Justice have acknowledged that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. But equal rights for gay couples and immigration reform have proven to be two of the issues that Republicans are most unwilling to compromise on, and progress on the combination of the two issues has proven truly Sisyphean in terms of how incremental and unsatisfying it feels to those impacted by it. There’s no way to be sure that this will be the time it works; that Congress will be able to agree on something, that the politicians who have promised to have Americans’ backs in later drafts will come through, or in the event that those things don’t occur, that Obama’s solution will be preferable or even able to pass. But it’s a comforting step forward that this issue has reached the level of national conversation, and with the momentum granted by a second-term president who doesn’t have to secure votes for a future election, we can at least think about hoping that this might be a moment of real change.

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Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 84 articles for us.


  1. Malaika I love getting to read about Canadian politics (and learn more about American ones) on Autostraddle! Thank you for writing about this stuff!

  2. I am part of a binational couple, and am currently living down in Mexico awaiting the day when my sweetheart and I can both live and work in the same country, at the same time! It has been the most frustrating and rewarding challenge of my life to maintain our relationship while navigating the three ring circus that is US visa and immigration law. It is an exciting time for us, to say the least. I’m optimistic that there is a dialogue happening, and we are at least tangentially included. I really wish that my congress would grow a pair and definitively put binational couples in its legislation. That would be a dream come true. It’s good to know that the President is on our side.

  3. As an American ex-pat with a Brit partner I am following this story closely. Equal immigration benefits wee extended to me as both a fiancée and civil partner. I have been in the UK for 5 years now. I originally visited for 6 months on an extended visitor visa. I then had to return to the states an apply for a fiancée visa which gave me another 6 months to be engaged and could be extended for another year or two once the Home Office (which is in control of Immigration) received the civil union certificate. At that point I needed to pass either a language test (applicable to all who are not native English speakers) or the UK Citizenship test. Upon passing that test I was granted a visa which allows me to remain in the UK indefinitely. I am permitted to apply for citizenship in another year or so if I like (which in my case would mean dual citizenship as this is possible for US citizens).
    The UK is also trying to cut down on immigration overall, and keeps adjusting it’s own laws every couple of years, but the process as a whole has been fairly straightforward. I hope the US will follow their general example. At the moment my partner would not be allowed in the US for more than 6 months at most, and it is very possible that she could be denied entry due to the fact that she might be considered a likely immigration risk.
    It is unlikely that we would want to relocate to the US even if the laws were changed, but we would love to have the option.

  4. I’m the foreign half of a bi-national couple, and we had to leave the US altogether after the renewal of my visa was refused because of my relationship. Apparently, since a same-sex partner cannot provide a path to a green card, they are instead considered a path to you becoming an illegal immigrant. So they took away my visa and I’m not allowed to re-enter the US.
    Luckily, I’m from Norway so we have a chance here. But basically my partner is now in exile from the US because of me, and it feels really fucked up that our home and our life was taken from us in this way, even if we have a chance at a new one here.

    • Hi Eva,

      I’m an American citizen and my girlfriend of 4 years is Norwegian. Our plan has been to get her a visa so we can start our lives together here in the US. Your post has us very worried about the possibility of her being deported after moving here. If you are willing to share your experiences with us, we would greatly appreciate it.

      Thank you.

  5. Wow! I could actually understand this convoluted story with all the tangled threads — thanks for untangling everything and writing so clearly on a confusing topic — well, confusing for me. As a Canadian, I have always found American politics to be a little over my head….

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