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The big immigration bill now before the Senate would provide many things, among them more visas for migrant farm workers and high tech workers and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. now. One thing it would not provide is help for same-sex couples where one partner is American and the other foreign born.
In heterosexual couples, the foreign-born spouse automatically qualifies for a green card and many of the benefits of citizenship, not so with gay and lesbian couples. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, some Democrats hope to change that with an amendment.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's a perfect spring evening. And in a suburban Maryland park, Liora Moriel and Susan Kirshner are watching their 9-year-old twins at baseball practice. Moriel was born in Israel 64 years ago and would like to retire in the not too distant future from her teaching job at the University of Maryland. But she has a temporary visa, not a green card. And Kirshner, her partner of 27 years and a federal employee, says her benefits don't cover Moriel.
SUSAN KIRSHNER: For us, the issue is largely going to focus around Liora's ability to retire and maintain the kinds of social services that she will need as a retired person, even though she's been living and working in this country and contributing and paying taxes, that's all at stake. And so their stability and our ability to stay here together as a family is in jeopardy if this bill doesn't pass.
NAYLOR: The bill is actually an amendment to the immigration overhaul that's been proposed by the so-called Gang of Eight senators, four Republicans and four Democrats. Steve Ralls of the group Immigration Equality says it would give same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals.
STEVE RALLS: As most people understand, when an American citizen marries a spouse from abroad, that spouse is then eligible for a green card here in the United States. For gay and lesbian couples, that option is not available. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government has been unable to confer immigration benefits to the partners of American citizens.
NAYLOR: With the Defense of Marriage Act now before the Supreme Court, the issue could become moot with a court decision to overturn DOMA. But backers of the amendment are unwilling to place their bets on the court's ruling in their favor. Immigration Equality estimates some 35 to 40,000 gay and lesbian couples are affected by this.
But support for the amendment is tenuous. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes it. Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican and Gang of Eight member, says approving the amendment could spell doom for the entire immigration bill. Here's Rubio interviewed by the website Buzzfeed in February.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: This issue is so complicated. The immigration issue has so many landmines and pitfalls that it's going to be hard enough to do as is. I think if that issue becomes the central issue in the debate, it's just going to make it harder to get it done because there are going to be a lot of strong feelings about it on both sides.
NAYLOR: House Republicans, already balking at the immigration measure, are thought to be even less likely to support it if it confers rights to same-sex couples. And backers of the amendment also worry that not all Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are on board. Still, Liora Moriel is hopeful.
LIORA MORIEL: You know, I'm optimistic. Both of us were quite active in the gay rights movement in Israel. And we always said that, you know, the United States was our beacon. I think all over the world people think that way and to then realize that Israel is far ahead of the United States on this issue in sexuality, it's quite strange.
NAYLOR: Amendment backers will be closely watching the Senate Judiciary Committee to see if Chairman Patrick Leahy formally files the measure for consideration by tomorrow afternoon's deadline. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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