RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This follow-up now on the move for immigration reform: When a Senate committee approved a bill overhauling immigration laws this week, it was a victory for supporters of reform, but a bitter pill for one group: the gay and lesbian community. Both Republican and Democratic senators rejected an amendment that would have allowed American citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for permanent residency. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports from San Francisco.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Thirty-six-year-old Eric Schnabel volunteers for a group called Out4Immigration, an advocacy group for same-sex, bi-national couples. Schnabel met his partner - we'll only call him Angel, since he's undocumented - on Valentine's Day in 2004. Schnabel laughs when he recalls that that was the same day that gay and lesbian couples first began getting married in San Francisco City Hall.
ERIC SCHNABEL: We thought it was too early for us to rush into that. So...
SCHNABEL: Never thought it would lead us into kind of a longer journey and process at the time.
GONZALES: Fast-forward seven years later to September 2011, when Schnabel and Angel got married in New York, where same sex-marriages are legal. Now they are one of an estimated 30,000 bi-national, same-sex couples who are hoping that the immigration overhaul bill might help them.
So they were watching closely a live video feed of the Senate Judiciary Committee session when Pat Leahy proffered his amendment. It would have allowed a U.S. citizen to sponsor their same-sex partner for permanent resident status, also known as a green card. But Leahy was forced to withdraw his amendment when it was clear that Republicans wouldn't support it. Schnabel says that action stings.
SCHNABEL: You know, we had been hearing over the last couple of weeks that Republicans had placed a pretty strong kind of line in the sand, that they weren't willing to compromise to include LGBT families in the immigration bill.
GONZALES: But Schnabel says he was surprised when Leahy's fellow Democrats abandoned the amendment, too.
SCHNABEL: Senators who had been really strong allies to us and have actually supported this bill as a stand-alone bill, the United American Families Act, just turned their back on the community so quickly.
GONZALES: But other supporters of the immigration reform package say the Committee had little choice. Robert Gittleson is the president of Conservatives for Immigration Reform. He says Leahy had to withdraw his amendment to allow immigration reform to move forward.
ROBERT GITTLESON: If that amendment had passed, had been introduced and had passed, it would have torn the coalition apart.
GONZALES: The coalition Gittleson is referring to is the so-called Gang of Eight, four Democrats and four Republicans who are sponsoring the immigration bill. They had pledged not to allow any poison-pill provisions like the gay marriage amendment to stop immigration overhaul.
GITTLESON: I believe that all four of the Republicans in that group, and certainly most, if not almost all of the Republicans in the Senate would not be in a position to support comprehensive immigration reform if it was conflated with the issue of LGBT marital spousal benefits.
GONZALES: But the fight over marriage equality is far from over, says Angela Kelly, of the D.C.-based Center for American Progress.
ANGELA KELLY: There's a Supreme Court decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act that's got big implications. A lot of the inequality, frankly, will be taken care of if DOMA is struck down.
GONZALES: The Supreme Court's ruling on Defense of Marriage Act is due next month. June is also the month that many LGBT activists hope they'll get another chance to raise their banner and offer another amendment when the immigration bill goes to the Senate floor. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.