Supreme Court gay marriage decision helps U.S. immigration bill
WASHINGTON, June 26 (Reuters) - Senators who wanted a gay rights provision added to the sweeping U.S. immigration reform bill backed off on Wednesday after the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
The court ruling removes one of the last obstacles for the Senate to pass the legislation that would overhaul the country's immigration system and give millions of illegal immigrants a chance to earn citizenship over 13 years.
Senate Democrats had been under pressure to include a provision in the bill allowing citizens to petition for their foreign-born, same-sex spouses to immigrate to the United States.
That privilege had been blocked by the Defense of Marriage Act, which said that for federal government purposes, marriage was between a man and a woman. On a 5-4 decision on Wednesday, the court struck down key parts of the act.
Now legally married gay men and women will be entitled to claim federal benefits that are available to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to sponsor a foreign-born spouse for permanent residency or a "green card."
"With the Supreme Court's decision today, it appears that the anti-discrimination principle that I have long advocated will apply to our immigration laws and binational couples and their families can now be united under the law," said Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
When Leahy's committee was working on the legislation in May, he was forced to withdraw his gay rights proposal after Republican senators threatened to reject the entire bill if the same-sex amendment was added.
Even Leahy's fellow Democrats on the committee said they could not support the provision if it killed the bill.
On Wednesday, Leahy said: "As a result of this welcome decision, I will not be seeking a floor vote on my amendment."
The Senate is expected to vote on the final bill later this week. The legislation would also set aside $46 billion to strengthen security at the U.S.-Mexico border and create new work visas for farm aides, unskilled laborers and the tech industry.
"At long last, we can now tell our families that yes, they are eligible to apply for green cards," said Rachel Tiven, executive director of gay rights group Immigration Equality.
The House of Representatives has yet to take up an immigration reform bill, and Republicans who control the House have voiced deep skepticism over the Senate plan.
(Reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Fred Barbash and Vicki Allen)