Immigration debate critical for same-sex couples

TAMPA — On their first date, the new couple left the restaurant holding hands.

A man riding by on a bicycle cursed at them.

Juan Rodriguez and Felipe Matos did not let go.

"When that happened, I felt that confirmation," Juan said. "This is the relationship that I want to be in. I want to fight against this type of bigotry."

Juan and Felipe, now married and living in Tampa, were among 11 million undocumented immigrants who welcomed the prospect of immigration reform. The proposal presented to Congress in April offers many a pathway to citizenship.

But it provides little hope for same-sex couples such as Juan and Felipe, who are trapped between the controversial issues of immigration and gay marriage.

More than 200,000 undocumented immigrants nationwide identify themselves as gay or transgender, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research institute.

The current bill would not allow U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their domestic partners and that's not likely to change. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., met fierce resistance in trying to add that provision and Tuesday evening, he withdrew his amendment, conceding it would imperil any chance of immigration reform.

Republicans said if Democrats added the Uniting American Families Act, they would walk away, upending fragile compromises that led to the bill.

"They've said it publicly, they've told me privately," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who like the other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee expressed support for same-sex couples but also worry about upending the bill.

Leahy referred to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who helped craft the bill, when he said: "When I read news stories of a Republican not on this committee threaten that my antidiscrimination amendment would kill the bill, I hoped it was just partisan rhetoric on talk radio but now I understand that even the supportive Republicans on this committee will also walk away from this comprehensive bill if we address this flaw in our immigration system."

A while later Tuesday, the committee approved the bill 13-5, with three Republicans joining Democrats. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act now goes to the full Senate.

The debate is being carefully watched by couples such as Juan and Felipe, who came here as undocumented immigrants.

At age 6, Juan and his family fled the violence in Colombia and moved to Homestead. Within a year, Juan learned English, but watched as his dad and other relatives labored in low-paying jobs.

As a high school senior looking toward college, universities wanted documents proving he lived in the country. His father told him the truth: Their family was undocumented.

"I got really depressed," said Juan, 23. "I felt ashamed.''

At age 14, Felipe left a Brazilian slum near Rio de Janeiro.

His mother, who raised him by herself, put her only son on a plane with a tourist visa and sent him to Miami to live with his older sister in 2001. Within a few months, the visa expired.

While attending Miami Dade College, Juan and Felipe met in 2008 at an immigration reform meeting for undocumented youths. The couple continued rallying for immigration reform through the years.

In May 2012, they married in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, becoming Juan and Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez.

Juan is an organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. Felipe, 27, is co-director of Get­EQUAL, a national organization supporting gay and transgender rights.

Juan, who has a green card, hopes to obtain his citizenship this year.

In December, Felipe obtained his approval for deferred action, a program that allows undocumented immigrants to remain here for two years.

But in less than two years, Felipe must reapply, with no guarantees of a second approval.

If the current bill becomes law, Felipe would have a chance to become a citizen within five years. But if the uniting families provision is added, Juan could sponsor him and shorten the five-year wait to less than six months.

"The whole concept of what a family is and what marriage is defined as is changing very rapidly for everyone across the country," Juan said, adding that gay and transgendered families are "constantly being thrown under the bus."

"They are not a priority."

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@tampabay.com or (813)226-3386.

Immigration debate critical for same-sex couples 05/21/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 1:00am]

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