SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — As a gay Mexican immigrant living in the United States illegally, Alex Aldana acutely understands his double-minority status. Not only does he fear deportation, he can't seek citizenship by marrying a partner because the federal government doesn't recognize same-sex marriages.
He and other gay activists are hoping the new immigration debate at the top of Washington's agenda will change that, and they are betting on a newly forged but still fragile alliance between a pair of voting blocs considered critical to President Obama's re-election: Latinos and the gay community.
The gay rights movement is working to make sure bi-national same-sex couples are included in immigration reform legislation making its way toward Congress, a tricky task for a constituency at the nexus of two hot-button social issues. So far, it has done so with strong backing from its liberal Latino partners.
Groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Council de la Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund — all of which endorsed same-sex unions last year — reiterated this week that married gays should be part of a reform plan that provides a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Both Obama and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have included bi-national gay couples in their immigration reform blueprints. The framework that eight leading Democratic and Republican senators unveiled this week did not.
Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, two of the senators working to hammer out a bipartisan immigration bill, already have rejected the idea that gay immigrants have a place in the coming debate.
"I'm telling you now, if you load this up with social issues and things that are controversial, then it will endanger" the endeavor, said McCain, whose wife and daughter support marriage rights for same-sex couples. He does not.
Aldana, 26, is torn. He encourages Hispanic groups to include gay rights in their struggle, but reminds gay activists that immigration rights go far beyond just fighting for legal residency for foreigners in same-sex marriages.
"The reality is that immigration is not just about married couples. That's a middle-class concern. It's a privilege I support, but it's not something that will benefit all our immigrant communities," Aldana said.
Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat and vice-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, plans to reintroduce stand-alone legislation next week in hopes of getting its provisions incorporated in any overarching immigration bill that reaches the Republican-controlled House.
"In the bow of the ship is immigration reform, and the big iceberg out there is reuniting families with bi-national couples," Honda said. "They cannot be excluded from the definition of family. Otherwise, we can't call it comprehensive."
Another factor is the U.S. Supreme Court's consideration in late March of the federal law that currently bars U.S. citizens in same-sex marriages from sponsoring their foreign-born partners for permanent legal residency. If justices uphold the Defense of Marriage Act, gay-friendly lawmakers would have less leverage to press the issue.
Gay rights leaders have focused attention on building strategic coalitions with ethnic and racial minority groups since the passage in 2008 of California's constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Exit polling showed that about seven of 10 black voters and more than half of Latinos supported Proposition 8 on the same day Obama first won the White House, revealing a gap between gay groups that were seen as white and privileged and minority communities that were viewed as inherently anti-gay.
Ari Gutierrez, chairwoman of the Latino Equality Alliance, a Los Angeles-based group of gay, lesbian and transgender Hispanics, said important inroads have been made since the election. Gay contingents now participate in the immigrant rights marches held every May Day. Last week, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force sponsored the first daylong workshop at its annual organizing conference devoted to working in Latino communities.
"There is work that still needs to be shored up, but I think it's pretty much understood that, if it's legal for one, it should be legal for the other," Gutierrez said.
A survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released in October, just before Latino and gay voters were credited with key roles in Obama's re-election, found support for gay marriage rising quickly among Latinos, with 53 percent favoring allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed. When the same survey was conducted in 2006, 56 percent of Latinos opposed same-sex unions.
Ultimately, though, decisions about whose needs are addressed and whose are left for another day lies with lawmakers and the White House, not the good intentions of advocacy groups, said Frank Gilliam, dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"If I were a Democratic Senate aide and this (issue) was a discussion in our staff meeting, I would tell our member that this is something you better be prepared to give up," Gilliam said. "We are talking politics. We are not talking about what the right thing to do is."