President Barack Obama tacitly includes same-sex couples in immigration reform plan

WASHINGTON - The sweeping immigration overhaul proposed this week by a bipartisan group of Capitol Hill lawmakers has alarmed activists because it doesn't include same-sex couples.

But President Barack Obama's immigration reform measure, unveiled Tuesday, would include gay couples. Even so, Obama did not address the issue in his Las Vegas speech, leaving it to be listed in a fact sheet distributed to reporters and others.

Both measures will face heated opposition in Congress, and what, if anything, may emerge from the debate is unknown.

The Senate lawmakers' reform framework calls for providing a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants; tougher border enforcement, including the use of drones; and an entry-exit system to track foreigners who overstay their visas.

People who entered the country illegally as children, and high-skilled workers and farm workers would be given special accommodations.

Heterosexuals are already permitted to sponsor their foreign-born spouse to become a permanent resident. Gay and lesbian couples, even those who are married, were omitted.

But Obama Tuesday tacitly endorsed extending that right to them.

Same-sex couples are a tiny fraction of the undocumented immigrant population. A study by the pro-gay Williams Institute think tank estimated that there are 28,500 same-sex couples in the United States in which one partner is a citizen and one is not.

Still, their status has become a major issue for the gay rights movement. As same-sex marriage has spread to nine states and the District of Columbia, such couples are denied immigration benefits under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bars all federal benefits to same-sex couples. The statute is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., intervened a year ago to defer action in the case of a San Francisco couple, Bradford Wells, a U.S. citizen, and Anthony John Makk, a citizen of Australia, who are married but faced possible deportation because Makk's visas had expired.

Heather Cronk, managing director of GetEqual, a national gay rights group in Berkeley, said Catholic bishops have been lobbying Congress to omit same-sex couples from an immigration bill, and she worried that such couples might become a bargaining chip as legislation is written.

"It's my understanding that there is no explicit mention ... in order to get Republican sign-on on the issue," Cronk said.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., House author of the Uniting American Families Act, which would extend to committed gay and lesbian couples the same immigration privileges available to heterosexual married couples, said Monday that he is not worried.

"We made it quite clear that gays and lesbians are not second-class people," Nadler said, "and if we have general immigration reform they are going to be included, period."

The framework is seen as the biggest breakthrough in immigration reform since a similar effort died in the House in 2006 under heavy Republican opposition. After Obama won re-election in November with more than 70 percent of the Latino vote, the GOP quickly began to revise its stance, resulting in the bipartisan Senate deal.

But many Republicans, especially in the House, continue to be strongly opposed to legalization.

The Senate measure's framework lays out principles only; the controversial details of legislation are expected in the spring. The looming political horse-trading worries gay and lesbian activists.

"We're really disappointed the senators did not include specific mention" of gays and lesbians, said Steve Ralls, spokesman for Immigration Equality, a gay rights group that helped Makk and Wells. "We are going to work nonstop to make sure when that bill is written, we are part of it."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who also helped in the Wells and Makk case, promised to "see that same-sex, bi-national couples who are married or meet requirements for being in a bona fide long-term relationship ... are included."

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Pelosi has been "very clear" that she wants same-sex couples included, adding that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus listed inclusion of same-sex couples prominently in its reform principles. Hammill said those principles "will serve as a guide for House Democrats to evaluate the strength or weakness of any proposal as this process moves forward."

The four Senate Republicans who crafted the framework are John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida. The Democrats are Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

(Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle's Washington correspondent. E-mail: clochhead@sfchronicle.com)