Immigrants Fear Split Families As Debate Underway in Senate

National News
For ten years, a local University of D.C. student waited for a green card from Ethiopia. His sister, a U.S. citizen from Silver Spring, Maryland, asked their mother to call him over, knowing that the waiting period would be shorter if his mother sponsored him.

The ten years passed by slowly. By the summer of 2008, new immigration legislation was being debated in Congress, forcing the DC resident to wait longer.

In a major overturn of an immigration system that traditionally favors family ties over economic criteria, senators could dramatically limit the number of green cards for extended families of U.S. citizens while easing the immigration path for high-skilled foreign workers, according to proposed amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act.

If passed, the proposal would make it harder for siblings and married adult children of U.S. citizens to become citizens by eliminating 90,000 VISAs for those categories, a move proponents say would address the 4.9 million backlog of immigrant applications and address the country’s economic needs. Such family members would still be able to apply for VISAs but would need qualifications like tech skills and English proficiency to increase chances of getting a VISA.

However, critics say cutting extended family VISAs would rattle the core of an immigration platform that has long supported immigrant family unification, shelving the social costs of family preservation in favor of measurable economic benefit that would compound the existing problem posed by long waiting lists.

“An integral part of our humanity is the understanding that children – at any age – are our family. That brothers and sisters are our family,” wrote Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. “Families must not be manipulated and used as a bargaining chip in a misleading and misguided attempt to characterize immigration as a zero-sum game.”

Nearly 60 percent of VISAs are granted based on familial ties and about 15 percent of VISAs are granted on an employment basis, according to Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute. The government currently gives spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens top priority, followed by unmarried children older than 21.

“For years, the problems within this system have frequently resulted in long term separation from our families for years or even decades to the backlogs, waiting lists, and visa caps,” Manar Waheed, policy director of the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national non-profit, told The Muslim Link, “The backlogs and waiting lists must be eliminated and visa caps raised so that families are not separated for years or decades on end.”

Republicans have shot down these recommendations in the past. Conversely, a 2007 bill that would have reduced the number of family VISAs did not advance in the senate following protest from some Democrats and the Catholic Church.

The proposals, backed by four senate Democrats and four Republicans, have been overshadowed by a fierce focus on laying a citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Seven Democratic senators asked the bipartisan group to reconsider their “troubling plans.”

“Different types of family members can play an important role in each other’s lives, and for some Americans, a brother or sister is the only family they have.”

Giving a green light to foreign workers would provide a “needed complement to the native-born labor force,” said Ben Johnson, executive direct of the American Immigration Council said in a March 5 statement to the House judiciary committee.

“Economists, social scientists, business leaders, and a broad range of other experts agree that innovation is the key to growing the economy and creating jobs. And the key to innovation is building, growing, attracting, and retaining a skilled workforce,” Johnson said, citing a 2012 report which found working foreign-born graduates created an average of 2.6 jobs for American workers.

Waheed, however, said this focus on framing the economic benefits of employment-based immigration was ungrounded. “Though South Asian Americans are often framed as benefiting exclusively from policy reform related to skilled workers or graduates of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), our community comprises of a diversity of individuals from janitors and domestic workers to doctors and engineers, from undocumented individuals to visa holders, legal permanent residents, refugees and asylees, and American citizens,” she said.

But even across the isle, experts agreed something has to give in a system with a large backlog of VISAs and long waiting periods.

“We need reform that improves our system, not reform that separates us from more family members,” Waheed said.

She said she would like to see comprehensive immigration reform that creates accessible pathways to legislation, keeps families together, eliminates backlogs, and increases caps for family and employment visas, stressing the importance of a “holistic approach” to allow all members to “effectively contribute to our society in a way that allows our nation to flourish, prosper, and succeed.”

Contending otherwise, Papademetriou said, would refute “our longstanding American tradition of valuing, respecting, and honoring brothers, sisters, and children as beloved close family members” – even if that longstanding traditions may have existing flaws.

Senators are currently debating the immigration overhaul legislation along with dozens of amendments dealing with scores of immigration related issues including border security; they are expected to finalize the legislation and vote later this month.