Action by the Senate Judiciary Committee in approving landmark immigration reform is a reminder that where there is a willingness to compromise, politics need not be an endless stalemate.
The committee voted, 13-5, in favor of a revised version of a bill written by a bipartisan group of eight senators. The 2012 election results have persuaded some Republicans that they need to end their obstruction of immigration reform and to show a more welcoming attitude toward the Hispanic population. Thus, four Republican senators joined four Democrats in developing a compromise that became the basis of the Senate bill.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the committee, led a series of grueling hearings during which the senators considered 301 amendments over five days. He let all of the senators have their say. As reports from Washington have suggested, some foes of immigration reform were all too happy to talk for hours. Leahy let them.
And yet the need to do something on immigration prevailed on a majority of committee members. The process was not without its drama. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican from Utah, was holding out for an amendment supported by the technology industry that would ease the way for a greater number of high-skilled foreign workers to gain admission. Organized labor and many Democratic senators had reservations about the possibility that American workers would be displaced. But the Democrats decided that Hatch’s support would strengthen the bill’s prospects in the full Senate and in the Republican House, and the committee adopted Hatch’s amendment.
Leahy had an amendment of his own that would have guaranteed the rights of married same-sex couples in immigration proceedings. At present federal law, including immigration law, does not recognize same-sex unions, which means that immigration proceedings can end up breaking families apart.
Republican backers of immigration reform were clear that they would withdraw their support if Leahy’s amendment was adopted. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was one of the authors of the immigration bill. He said, “You’ve got me on immigration. You don’t have me on marriage. If you want to keep me on immigration, let’s stay on immigration.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, said failing to include Leahy’s amendment was “rank discrimination” but that he could not support the amendment if it was going to ruin the bill’s prospects for passage. With immigration reform within their grasp, Democrats were not willing to risk it by including Leahy’s marriage amendment, and Leahy withdrew it — “with a heavy heart.”
Supporters of marriage equality understood the difficult position in which Leahy found himself. The advocacy group Third Way issued a statement saying, “Sen. Patrick Leahy has fought for years to achieve justice for both gay couples and immigrants, and so we stand behind him on today’s tough but necessary decision to withdraw his amendment and move immigration reform forward. This decision undoubtedly pains those who were forced to choose between two constituencies they care about deeply. It is unfortunate that the legitimate interests of one constituency threaten the legitimate interests of the other in this legislation.”
Leahy held out the possibility that he would introduce his amendment on the Senate floor, but at this point it would be a symbolic gesture since neither Democrats nor Republicans were willing for marriage equality to become the poison pill that would kill immigration reform.
The struggle over Leahy’s amendment demonstrates that for all the gains achieved in the fight for equal rights, much remains to be done. The federal Defense of Marriage Act holds that in the eyes of the federal government marriage is between a man and a woman only. If the Supreme Court overturns DOMA, it could open the way for recognition of equal marriage rights in immigration law.
Leahy’s willingness to compromise on a matter of principle was an act of statesmanship that ought to be less rare in politics. It was not surrender. It was not defeat. It was a choice: that immigration reform has reached a historic juncture and that marriage equality is a battle for another day. Gradually, through patience and dedication it’s a battle that is being won.
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