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What Obama's Immigration Plan Means for Gay Couples


During his second inaugural speech, Pres. Obama promised sweeping reforms to the US government's view on gay and lesbian rights in America. From Seneca Falls and Selma to Stonewall, the president offered equal rights to all citizens. It was not clear at the moment what rights would be addressed first. However, a strategy was set into motion. The historic mention of gay and lesbian equality in the inaugural speech offers an aggressive timeline that could mean dramatic changes within federal policy over the next four years. Pres. Obama seems to be wasting little time. First up, US immigration policy, a contentious political issue that will generate highly emotional debate as the President's proposals include rights for gay and lesbian binational couples.

Historically, gay and lesbian binational couples have been caught in the crossfire of American politics. Under current immigration laws, married couples can apply to "sponsor" spouses who happen to be nationals of other countries. The application is no guarantee, but it expedites the opportunity for family unity, as the visa gives the foreign spouse rights to stay in the country and to work, for heterosexual couple at least.

American federal policies appear to be isolated, but many are interconnected in a web of statutes that all affect each other. What allows heterosexual couples to sponsor one another for temporary or permanent US citizenship is the fact that straight couples are legally able to marry in America. Because of this, the legal marriages performed in other countries where it is allowed are also recognized within American borders. The right to immigrate to America as a married individual is based on rights I just mentioned.

For gay and lesbian couples, the issue becomes far more complicated. On a federal level, same-sex marriages are not recognized under law. Further, immigration rights are not handled on the state level, so even if a couple is legally married in say, New York, their marriage is not recognized under federal law. As a result, the marriage does not legally qualify for immigration benefits. Here, inequalities that begin on the federal level have a trickle down effect. Pres. Obama's plan seeks to eliminate this disparity.

It may seem obvious to first tackle national same-sex marriage policy by reversing DOMA, the federal amendment which disallows the recognition of gay and lesbian couples on a national level. However, politically, it's not as simple. Although support for same-sex marriage is on the rise, it remains a polarized issue that elicits strong political backlash. The president has instead chosen a ground up strategy by attacking the disparities that the discriminatory marriage policy affect, like immigration.

The tactic was tested with US military programs that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly within services. Although many gay Americans were frustrated by the slow pace at which the (in)famous 'don't ask, don't tell' policy (DADT) was evaluated, its swift repeal demonstrated a political savvy that allows the president to capture as much support as possible within the least uncomfortable space to achieve his ultimate goals. He allowed the Pentagon freedom to find comfort in the new ideal and then aggressively pressed for its enactment. Despite their initial hesitation, the Pentagon made public admission that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly has proven a success one year after DADT's repeal. The president's strategy has become a signature of his administration.

Nonetheless, can we expect the same for the divisive immigration debate? There is much at stake as the country heads into a new direction on border policies. An overhaul of immigration laws is no easy task, as there's much to consider that's far more complicated than simply reversing what's already in place. Much of the detail associated with the plan can't be addressed here, but suffice it to say the president's open commitment LGBT equality makes it likely that gay and lesbian immigration equality won't be caught in the crossfire.
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