WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some disappointed activists say they are yanking their support for the Democratic Party after Senate Democrats opposed a proposal in an immigration bill that would have allowed citizens to bring their foreign-born, same-sex spouses to the United States.
Jonathan Lewis, a Miami philanthropist who donated more than $35,000 in 2012, has stopped giving and is urging others to do the same until President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats stop breaking promises to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“Now is the time to stop investing in Democratic cowardice and stand proud by withholding donations until we see our friends’ actions and deeds align with their rhetoric,” Lewis said in an email to Reuters.
“Pretty words about fairness and equality under the law from the president and Democrats in Congress do not absolve them from their moral duty to act,” he said.
Obama won points with activists when he endorsed same-sex marriage while running for re-election last year and then referred to it in his inauguration speech in January. Now almost every Democrat in the Senate and a few Republicans have come out supporting same-sex marriage.
But Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee helped keep a proposal out of a sweeping immigration overhaul that would have allowed citizens to petition for their same-sex spouses to immigrate to the United States - the same way that heterosexuals can be reunited with their spouses.
This comes as Obama has so far declined to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
Shortly before voting to pass the bill out of committee on May 21, several committee Democrats said they could not support the amendment offered by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. They said they feared it would kill the entire immigration legislation and not get any Republican support.
“The issue of marriage is a fundamental right,” said Juan Ahonen-Jover, a Florida-based entrepreneur and philanthropist who spends his time promoting equal rights for the LGBT community. “Even prisoners on death row have the right to marry.”
Ahonen-Jover said he and his husband contributed $10,000 to Obama after the president announced his support for same-sex marriage in May 2012. He estimates that they have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party in the past.
Now, he said, they are not planning on giving until “the Democratic Party starts acting like Democrats and show some spine.” Ahonen-Jover and his partner have created a website, www.equalitygiving.org, that serves as a forum for other LGBT donors who want to make a difference politically.
Rachel Tiven, the executive director of the gay rights group Immigration Equality, said numerous donors she has spoken to are “very, very angry” and want Democrats to pay a price financially.
“They don’t expect that the support for gay rights is theoretical,” she said.
A spokesman for another gay rights group, Human Rights Campaign, stressed that Republicans also were to blame but said, “The betrayal the community feels is especially palpable toward the Democratic senators because they’ve been our traditional allies.”
The Senate immigration bill, which proposes sweeping changes to the current system and would give millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, is headed to the Senate floor in June where it is expected to undergo hundreds of amendments.
Although the Supreme Court could soon strike down a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, activists are not counting on a ruling in their favor. Currently there are 12 states that allow same-sex couples to marry.
A number of LGBT activists say the immigration shift marks the third time that immigration bill sponsor New York Senator Charles Schumer, who opposed the Leahy amendment in committee, has let them down.
They said Schumer told them he was hoping to include the same-sex provisions also known as the Uniting American Families Act, or UAFA, in the immigration legislation he was crafting with seven other Democratic and Republican senators.
When the bill was introduced in April, Schumer called leaders in the LGBT community to say the equal marriage measure was not included, but told them not to worry because Democrats would vote in favor of the provision in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But on May 21, Schumer and other Democrats on the committee said they could not support the provision if it meant killing the entire immigration bill.
“Senator Schumer is and has always been a strong supporter of UAFA,” said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Schumer. “However, Republicans said they would walk away from the whole bill over this issue, which would have resulted in no immigration reform, as well as no UAFA.”
A Schumer aide said the senator would spend the next couple of weeks focused on getting the seven or eight Republicans needed to pass the same-sex provision in hopes that bipartisan support would help ensure passage of the entire bill.
“I was in total shock as the whole thing was happening,” said Ness Madeiros, whose visa expires in July and who could have to return to her home country Bermuda despite living with her wife and child in Minnesota.
Madeiros, who married an American, Ginger Madeiros, in Massachusetts, said she was bitterly disappointed by the Democrats.
“I thought they were in our corner,” she said.
Reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Fred Barbash and Bill Trott