WASHINGTON (BP) -- Injecting benefits for same-sex partners into immigration reform would be a "deal-breaker" for conservatives, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land told a Washington, D.C., audience.
Speaking Thursday (Feb. 14) at a panel discussion on immigration reform, Land said extending legal residency to homosexual partners of American citizens would kill support among many members of Congress, as well as conservative evangelicals who back reform.
"It would imply that the federal government is recognizing same-sex marriage, which the federal government has not done," Land told the audience. "In fact, the federal government has a law in place [the Defense of Marriage Act]," which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Afterward, Land told Baptist Press, "Among the majority of evangelicals and Southern Baptists, it would be seen as a de facto federal recognition of same-sex marriage and thus would be a deal-breaker."
President Obama and some congressional Democrats have called for including sponsorship of residency for homosexual partners in immigration reform.
Assessing the Democratic position on the issue, Eliseo Medina, a union leader, told the audience, "Well, for us, we believe that everybody's created equal. So we think everybody should have the same opportunity."
Asked what Democrats would do if the same-sex provision is not included, Medina said, "I think that's still an issue to be decided."
Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, added, "We're not talking about equality. We're talking about recognizing a particular kind of marriage."
The panel discussion, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), came as Congress begins a push to address seriously for the first time since 2007 an immigration system generally acknowledged to be broken. An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants are in the country illegally.
Four Republicans -- led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -- and four Democrats in the Senate have proposed a plan for broad reform. In his state of the Union speech Feb. 12, Obama called for immigration legislation in language that appeared conciliatory toward Republicans.
Both Land and Medina said Congress has a narrow window of opportunity.
"I do think that we are at a critical moment," Land told the audience. "I think if we don't pass this by July Fourth or by Labor Day, it won't get passed" in this congressional session.
"Otherwise, rancor over the financial and budget issues will have overtaken the bipartisan spirit that is necessary for immigration reform and will make it impossible to pass in this Congress. So whatever we do, we need to do quickly," he told BP later.
Medina said during the panel discussion, "[E]verybody is extremely cognizant that we have a very limited period of time."
During the discussion, Land was asked to assess Republican sentiment on the issue, while Medina provided a Democratic perspective.
The same-sex partners issue was not the only one they said could be a "deal-breaker" in Congress.
A "critical mass" of Republicans is ready to accept a pathway to citizenship, Land predicted.
He thinks "the citizenship issue is doable, as long as it is prolonged enough that it's not seen as a reward for having come here in an undocumented status."
"I think that a deal-breaker, a real poison pill, would be if people in the Congress began to demand an immediate citizenship," Land said. "That would peel off enough Republicans that it would stop it."
The reform cannot have "people who have come here in undocumented status getting full citizenship before people who come here under the new provisions that will be in the new legislation," Land said.
Meanwhile, Medina said, "For us, not having citizenship or the opportunity to become a citizen is a deal-breaker."
Edward Alden, another panelist and a CFR senior fellow, pointed to one of the problems with the citizenship issue. "One of the reasons this debate over how long the path to citizenship should be is so difficult is that our current system is so hugely backlogged," he said.
The back of the line for citizenship is 20 years or more, Alden told the audience.
Medina said of the path to citizenship, "The question is how long is that process? Because if it becomes a delay-and-deny process, that is not going to work. So if you start talking about 30, 35 years, 25 years, it's beyond the lifetime of many of these people, and that is not a pathway."
Land said he thinks another "deal-breaker" would be a failure to require those seeking citizenship to speak English.
Land and Medina served as members of a CFR task force on immigration that published a report in 2009. Alden directed the task force.
The proposal by Rubio and the other senators would require undocumented immigrants to register with the government -- as well as pass a background check and pay back taxes and a fine -- to gain "probationary legal status." All enforcement provisions must be final before an immigrant on probation can earn a green card. A commission, which includes governors and attorneys general from Southwestern border states, must make a recommendation about when the security prerequisites are met.
Immigrants on probation will not be able to receive federal benefits and must go to the back of the line for all immigrants, undergo another background check, learn English and civics, and prove they have a history of employment and a current job to seek permanent residency.
For several years, Land has called for comprehensive reform that includes security at the border and in the workplace, as well as a pathway to citizenship that would consist of such requirements as paying fines, undergoing a criminal background check, learning English, pledging allegiance to the American government, accepting a probationary period and going to the back of the line behind those seeking to enter the country legally.
Messengers to the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix approved a resolution on immigration reform that 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.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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