Jan. 29, 2013 -- President Barack Obama avoided specifically calling for equal rights for same-sex couples as part of an immigration reform package during a news conference in Las Vegas today. But the White House released a set of proposals that does urge lawmakers to guarantee gay and lesbian couples the same rights as heterosexual spouses.
"It also treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner," reads a section of the proposal geared toward keeping families together.
Gay rights activists have criticized a framework for immigration reform laid out Monday by a bipartisan group of eight senators for not including such protections.
"We were disappointed that the bipartisan framework did not specifically include lesbian and gay families," Steve Ralls, a spokesman for Immigration Equality, a group that supports immigration benefits for LGBT families, said. "Earlier this year, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus released their priorities for immigration reform and we were on their list that they wanted to see included."
Inclusion would mean a dramatic shift in policy. Currently, LGBT citizens cannot marry their foreign partners and confer citizenship upon them in the same way that straight couples can. While some states allow same-sex couples to marry, they are still ineligible under federal law for the same green cards granted to straight couples.
And an immigration reform bill is not the only potential hurdle in addressing this.
The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, is still in place, and while the Supreme Court is set to rule on its legality later this year, the chances of it being overturned are questionable.
Ralls said that Immigration Equality would like to see legislation that recognizes lesbian and gay families, and gives people the option to sponsor their spouses for residency, included in immigration reform.
"That legislation would help couples regardless of DOMA," Ralls said.
"We're really hoping the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA in June," he continued, "but if it doesn't happen, immigration reform is a critical safety net for lesbian and gay couples, because if DOMA does not get struck down, they would be vulnerable to separation."
But Mark Silverman, director of immigration policy with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center is not so sure an immigration proposal that includes federal recognition of same-sex couples will succeed.
"To lump it together with federal recognition of gay marriage would certainly doom it to failure in the immigration context," Silverman said.
He added, though, that he thinks the president has done much to shift public opinion in favor of gay rights, and he's encouraged by the shift in public opinion on the issue.
"I've never seen the public shift so quickly on an issue," Silverman said. "So in the short-term I'm not optimistic, but in the long-term I'm very optimistic."
Some equal rights proponents are taking the Senate plan to task, however, for the failure to include protections for the LGBT community.
"Republicans are desperate for immigration reform. And embracing gay rights is a political plus, not a minus, for Democrats, as the President has already learned," reads a post on Americablog, a progressive, pro-gay rights site. "Combining the two is a win-win for everyone. Does anyone really think the Republicans are going to risk killing the very thing they're now most desperate for?"
However, it's worth noting that although official policy has been slow to change, day-to-day practices have softened somewhat. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has prioritized the deportation of violent offenders and repeat offenders, and her department has exercised prosecutorial discretion to avoid the deportation of some same-sex partners.
Not everyone is convinced that immigration reform will pass if LGBT families are included, however.
"We'll have to look at it," Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) told CBS. "We'll have to gauge how the majority of Congress feels. But that, to me, is a red flag that, frankly, we will address in time. We need to get broad consensus over on our proposal to start with. And there are a number of very difficult issues we have to resolve."
But Ralls thinks any immigration bill will be stronger with the support of the LGBT community.
"We're ready and willing to help pass immigration reform," he said, "and a bill that includes gay famlies is stronger."