Gay Couples Applaud Obama, Disappointed in Congress on Immigration

The political reality makes gay rights a difficult sell for Republicans in sweeping immigration bill.

President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.
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Edwin Blesch, 72, and his partner Tim Smulian, 66, have been together for 14 years and married for more than five. The state of New York recognizes them as a married couple. But when it comes to immigration status, the federal government does not.

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Unlike heterosexual, married couples who can apply for green cards to stay together in the United States, Smulian, who is from South Africa, has had mostly temporary visas, which only allow him to spend six months of the year in Long Island, N.Y., where his partner lives. The other six months Blesch and Smulian have traveled elsewhere at a high cost to both their health and their bank accounts. Blesch, who is HIV positive, has been spending much of his time in Canada to stay with Smulian. But because Blesch does not get Medicare coverage abroad, he has had to return to the U.S. multiple times to confront health problems alone.

"We do it because we are married and together, and we intend on staying together forever," Blesch says. "But, it's been a struggle."

"It's extremely disruptive," Smulian adds.

In 2012, Smulian was granted a one-year deferment to stay in the U.S., but the status is only temporary. Smulian has explored other long-term options, but according to their lawyer he does not qualify for a green card under other provisions in the law unrelated to marriage status.

Blesch and Smulian were among many couples applauding President Barack Obama's call to address LBGT immigration concerns in a comprehensive immigration bill Tuesday. Obama did not vocalize his proposal to help same-sex couples, but included it in a more detailed plan he released on paper.

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They were also among the group of same-sex couples disappointed Monday by a bipartisan group of senators' immigration proposal, which did not include provisions to give equal rights to same-sex, binational couples.

"It didn't mention our people," Blesch says.

When asked about whether the senators would seek to address immigration laws for the LBGT community, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said only that the group would take a look at "those details."

"We believe that any immigration reform effort is made stronger by including the LBGT community and their families," says Steve Ralls, the communications director for Immigration Equality, a group that works to advance immigration rights for the LBGT community. "Yesterday was a starting point, not legislation. We are committed to working with the senate offices to make sure that when there is a comprehensive immigration reform bill, we are included in it."

According to U.S. census data there are roughly 36,000 couples who would be affected if Congress voted to recognize same-sex couples for green cards.

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But the current blueprint of immigration reform, which includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, will be a hard enough sell in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives without the added controversy over whether or not Congress should guarantee same-sex, binational couples the same rights as heterosexual ones.

"It opens up an issue that might cost us some votes," says Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Charlie Dent. "This might be an issue that is easier to deal with on a stand alone basis."

Dent is among a group of moderate Republicans who is sympathetic to the struggles of gay couples when it comes to immigration. In the 112th Congress, he supported the Uniting American Families Act, a bill that would give same-sex couples immigration rights equal to those of heterosexual couples.

"I thought it was a matter of fairness," Dent says.

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Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat, said in an E-mailed statement he plans to re-introduce the legislation next month. A Senate Judiciary Committee aide says a similar bill is expected to be forthcoming from the Senate around the same time.