How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigration reform bill moves on without amendments some advocates hoped for

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When the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a comprehensive immigration reform bill by a 13 to 5 vote Tuesday, it did so without a couple of controversial amendments: One would have extended immigration rights to same-sex couples, and another would have preserved two categories of immigrant visas that stand to be cut. 

The most controversial amendment was brought up at the end of Tuesday's negotiations, a proposal from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) that would have allowed gay and lesbian U.S. citizens to sponsor a same-sex spouse on an immigrant visa. As it stands now, federal law only allows straight married couples to do so.

While many on the Senate committee voiced support, they also said they feared the amendment might torpedo the bill. It was eventually withdrawn.

Gay and lesbian advocates say they're upset that senators bought into what they describe as a "poison pill" argument from opponents.

"I feel betrayed, not because the amendment did not get voted on or become part of the bill," says Lavi Soloway, an immigration attorney and one of the founders of an advocacy group called The DOMA Project. "I feel betrayed because they did not stand up for gay and lesbian Americans. They allowed us to be scapegoated, and trivialized."

The amendment was based on the Uniting American Families Act, an existing stand-alone bill that would extend immigration rights to gay and lesbian couples. Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, same-sex marriages are not recognized for immigration purposes. This could change if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down DOMA in June. 

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) had proposed several amendments tied to family-sponsored visas. The Senate bill proposes eliminating visas for siblings of U.S. citizens, and for their adult married children over age 30.

An amendment from Hirono that sought to preserve these categories wasn't voted on. Another that aimed to provide a limited number of visas for these relatives – only in cases of extreme hardship to the U.S. citizen sponsor – was voted down.

Asian American groups had fought especially hard to preserve family visa categories. Betty Hung, of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, says she's disappointed, but that there's still a chance to win, especially as the House prepares its own comprehensive reform plan.

"We are going to continue our efforts. I think it was notable that Sen. (Dianne) Feinstein said yesterday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that she had heard more on this issue of family immigration – of brothers and sisters and adult married children – than anything else," Hung says. "I think that really highlights how important our families are, immigrant families are, to our country." 

The Senate bill now heads for a floor vote, likely in June.

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