Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Political Notebook:
Speier questions pro-gay immigration reform strategy at SF


Representative Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) makes a point during a town hall meeting for members of the LGBT community that she held Monday, August 31. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) doesn't believe including pro-gay reforms in a comprehensive immigration bill is the best strategy to win rights for binational LGBT couples. And with Congress bogged down on passing health care reform legislation, she also cautioned LGBT activists not to expect any action on the issue until 2010.

"By making the bill comprehensive it does muddy the waters," said the freshman House member, who predicted "nothing will happen this year on immigration."

Speier voiced her concerns about the strategy at a town hall meeting she held August 31 for the LGBT community in San Francisco. The northern most sections of Speier's 12th Congressional District reach into portions of the city, including such LGBT-heavy neighborhoods as Glen Park, Diamond Heights, and Twin Peaks.

Since winning a special election to her seat last year, Speier has quickly moved to back several legislative efforts to win LGBT rights. The issue of immigration has been especially fraught for the Peninsula lawmaker, as several of her constituents who are binational same-sex couples have reached out to her for help with immigration issues.

She is a co-sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, introduced by Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), which would allow LGBT Americans to seek residency status for their foreign-born partners. But the bill has languished in the House for nine years and has failed to draw significant support in the Senate.

In an effort to move the bill's legislative goals along, Congressman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) included the pro-gay language in his omnibus immigration reform bill called the Reuniting Families Act. But the bill has yet to move out of a House subcommittee and the Senate version does not include the LGBT provisions.

Nadler, a co-sponsor of Honda's measure, has expressed hope the pro-gay language will be added into the final bill that comes out of the conference committee tasked with reconciling the House and Senate versions.

According to the list of House members co-sponsoring the omnibus bill on Honda's Web site, Speier has yet to register her support. Asked by the Bay Area Reporter during the town hall this week to clarify her position, Speier said she does support Honda's measure but also supports seeing Congress pass the LGBT-specific legislation separately.

"There are problems progressing both bills by having them linked," she said during the afternoon gathering that drew 25 people to the LGBT Community Center.

The issue hit close to home earlier this year for Speier after local LGBT leaders asked her to intervene in the case of Pacifica resident Shirley Tan. The lesbian mother of two was only hours away from being deported back to the Philippines when Speier convinced immigration officials to delay doing so in order to give her time to work with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) to keep Tan in the country.

Working late one night on the matter, Speier went to pick up take out food for her staff when she called the immigration agent working the Tan case to request more time so that Feinstein could introduce a private bill into the Senate that would block any deportation from proceeding during the current session of Congress.

"I asked if they would just extend the deadline three weeks. He said, 'I would have to get back to you.' As luck would have it, they extended it," said Speier, who drove down to meet with Tan, her two boys, and her partner at their home to gather evidence to argue for Tan's remaining in the country. "I was flipping through 20 years of photo albums and it just made the case. If all marriages were as strong as this marriage, we wouldn't have half the trouble we have with marriages ending in divorce."

Molly McKay, a lawyer and marriage equality activist who asked Speier's office to help with the Tan case, thanked the congresswoman this week for her intervening in the matter. She said that at first she held out little hope of having the lawmakers intervene, particularly since Feinstein has so far refused to sign on to the pro-gay immigration legislation.

"Feinstein's action really shocked me," said McKay. "It opened the door to a whole new day for binational couples."

Speier, responding to a question from Transgender Law Center Executive Director Masen Davis on how to seek support from Congress members for LGBT bills, said the best approach is to just ask them face-to-face.

"Schedule meetings in their district and ask them to support it. It is the personal touch that works best," said Speier. "It has to be more than just a letter or e-mail."

She also advised that sometimes members will only go so far in terms of their support for a bill. Their lack of co-sponsoring legislation does not equate a no vote, she said.

"Members will vote for it but don't want to be front and center. Sometimes you have to respect that," said Speier.

Among her constituents who attended the nearly 80-minute long get-together, Speier won high praise for her first 16 months in office.

"She has been one of our strongest allies. We are incredibly lucky to have her representing us," said psychiatrist Rob Daroff, who lives in San Francisco and voted for Speier. "I think it is great she is reaching out to our community to see how she can do more for us."

Carol Cook and Susan Grieger, a married couple from San Mateo, attended the town hall and also lauded Speier for her work in the Congress on LGBT issues.

"She is a very impressive representative," said Cook, a board member of both the Peninsula Marriage Equality Coalition and the San Jose Peninsula PFLAG chapter.

Speier told the group that she considers them her advisers on LGBT issues and welcomes their input and feedback.

"We still have a long road to travel, but I have got to tell you I am very optimistic. In the next five years from now many of these issues will be history," said Speier. "I need your help to continue to do a good job."

Amos Lim, a gay man who lives in the Sunset District and is treasurer for Out 4 Immigration, said it is not just valuable for Speier to hear directly from her LGBT constituents. They also gain insight from having face time with their representative.

"I think she is very truthful in talking about what she sees in Washington. It gives us a better idea of what we have to deal with," said Lim, who also voted for Speier.

Meeting a first in some time

The town hall was not only the first time Speier had publicly met with the LGBT community since winning her seat, but it marked the first such interaction with a local congressional member in some time. It has been more than a decade, if not longer, since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has taken the time to meet with local LGBT constituents in a setting open to the press and the public.

Pelosi, who represents the majority of San Francisco, including the gay Castro district, first won election to the House in 1987, and in 2007, was elected speaker. Apart from private meetings with local LGBT leaders, and carefully stage-managed events where the local press is given limited access to her, Pelosi has not held an open town hall with her LGBT constituents in some time.

Her spokesman in D.C. dodged the B.A.R. 's questions on when, if ever, Pelosi had held an event similar to Speier's town hall this week.

In a terse e-mail reply, Drew Hammill wrote that, "The speaker regularly sits down with community leaders for an in-depth and candid discussion about LGBT priorities in Congress."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column is about gay state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's (D-San Francisco) re-election campaign.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail

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