The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed a guest worker programme granting an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship, while binational same-sex couples will continue to face discrimination under the plan, according to equality groups.

“The Judiciary Committee’s bill is good news for America,” said Immigration Equality executive director Rachel B. Tiven, “but lesbian and gay families are still cruelly discriminated against under immigration law, despite Congress’ promise to value families.”

It stands in stark contrast to last year’s House-passed measure that would criminalise harbouring undocumented immigrants, including same-sex partners with expired visas.

“Nobody should be forced to choose between the person they love and breaking the law,” said Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese.

“The House version would force a same-sex partner to turn in their loved one or risk criminal penalties. American families are being torn apart under the current structure and there is absolutely no reason to increase their burden.”

The version passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee includes an amendment protecting groups and individuals from being prosecuted for knowingly or unknowingly offering humanitarian assistance to illegal immigrants.

Under the Senate’s Judiciary Committee bill, participants would receive a valid visa status that would enable them to work for up to six years. After the six-year work period, an individual under this program would pay a fine and then become eligible to apply for permanent residency.

The Senate Judiciary bill goes a long way toward addressing many problems within the U.S. immigration regime but it is neither comprehensive nor fair. The bill fails to address the second-class nature of same-sex relationships despite the guiding principle of family unity within the Senate bill and within the larger immigration system.

Additionally, several measures aimed at increasing border security and increasing the government’s power of indefinite detention of individuals, expedited removal and deportation, now go to the full Senate for debate.

“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender immigrants and their families are uniquely vulnerable,” added Ms Tiven. “Detaining more immigrants, with less judicial review, will put the lives of innocent people at risk.”

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