The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 Tuesday night (May 21) for a bill designed to provide broad reform for a system that seemingly everyone acknowledges is badly broken. The lack of enforcement of the current system has resulted in an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States illegally.
It appeared support for the bill from many evangelicals, conservatives and Republicans would have vanished had the controversial topic of same-sex partners been interjected by the committee. After recognizing the threat to passage of the overall bill, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, withdrew before a final committee vote his amendments supported by homosexual rights organizations.
One of Leahy's amendments would have recognized for immigration purposes a same-sex marriage that is legal in a state or foreign country. His other amendment would have enabled a same-sex partner of an American citizen to gain legal residency in the same way a husband or wife of a citizen does.
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land welcomed the committee's forwarding of the bill without the same-sex provisions.
"I am delighted that the immigration bill has passed out of the Judiciary Committee and that it has done so without any commingling of the immigration issue with the same-sex marriage issue," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). "The bill will only get stronger from further debate in the Senate and debate in the House. This is a rare opportunity for bipartisan cooperation to do what's best for the country and pass an immigration reform package that will not necessitate us revisiting this issue in the future."
In a May 14 letter, Richard Land told Leahy and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the leading Republican on the Judiciary Committee, the "issue is a deal-breaker" for the ERLC.
"On this point we seek to be 'Waterford' crystal clear: If same-sex partner reunification provision is included in an immigration reform overhaul, the would not merely hold a neutral position on the broader bill, but would instead actively oppose it," Land said.
In announcing the withdrawal of one of his same-sex amendments Tuesday, Leahy said, "I take the Republican sponsors of this important legislation at their word that they will abandon their own efforts if discrimination is removed from our immigration system. So, with a heavy heart, and as a result of my conclusion that Republicans will kill this vital legislation if this anti-discrimination amendment is added, I will withhold calling for a vote on it. But I will continue to fight for equality."
Three Republicans -- Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Orrin Hatch of Utah -- joined the Judiciary Committee's 10 Democrats in approving the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, S. 744. The panel approved 141 of 212 amendments considered during five sessions, the committee reported.
The Senate bill includes a universal employment verification system, as well as border security and fence plans. When the border security plans are in place, undocumented immigrants can seek temporary status. To achieve such provisional status under the bill, each immigrant must meet several requirements.
The committee rejected amendments offered by Republicans to hasten both the securing of the border and implementation of the employment verification system.
Land and other evangelical supporters of broad immigration reform said upon its mid-April introduction the Senate bill marked a solid, though imperfect, start but did not endorse it. The product of about three months of negotiations among four Democrats and four Republicans, the proposal is the first serious congressional attempt since 2007 to repair the immigration system.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a leading GOP conservative involved in the negotiations, said the committee-approved bill marks "significant progress" but "work still remains to be done." Congress must "earn the confidence of the American people that we are solving our immigration problems once and for all," he said in a written statement.
He remains hopeful the Senate can improve the legislation "through an open and deliberative floor debate."
Messengers to the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed a resolution in support of immigration reform with specific guidelines.
That resolution from the SBC meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., called for the advancement of the gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials establish after securing the borders "a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country." It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.
Supporters of immigration reform have warned there is only a narrow window of opportunity for passage in this two-year congressional session, which closes at the end of 2014. Land has predicted approval must happen by the Fourth of July or Labor Day this year.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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