Im­mi­grants have fam­i­lies too

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - By Bill Ong Hing

Abi­par­ti­san group of sen­a­tors and the White House struck a deal Thurs­day on a sweep­ing im­mi­gra­tion re­form plan. It seems on the face of it to have some­thing for ev­ery­one: a path to cit­i­zen­ship for the coun­try’s 12 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, a guest worker pro­gram for in­dus­try and a re­dou­bling of border se­cu­rity for en­force­ment-minded vot­ers.

But there’s one group for whom this com­pro­mise isn’t so grand: any­one in the U.S. with fam­ily over­seas.

If passed and signed into law, this pro­posal would dra­mat­i­cally shift how the na­tion chooses its fu­ture im­mi­grants. His­tor­i­cally, pri­or­ity has been given to those with fam­ily mem­bers here. (Last year, 63% of im­mi­gra­tion visas were granted to rel­a­tives of U.S. cit­i­zens or le­gal res­i­dents.) The Se­nate wants to adopt a new “point sys­tem” that would fa­vor ap­pli­cants who speak English, those with higher ed­u­ca­tion and some with spe­cific job skills.

Se­nate Repub­li­cans held the le­gal­iza­tion as­pect of the plan hostage un­til Democrats agreed to elim­i­nate the im­mi­gra­tion cat­e­gories re­served for sib- lings of U.S. cit­i­zens and un­mar­ried older chil­dren of law­ful res­i­dents.

This rep­re­sents a huge step back­ward. Just a year ago, the Se­nate ap­proved a bill that would have re­tained all fam­ily cat­e­gories and even is­sued ad­di­tional visas to re­duce se­vere back­logs. Five mil­lion for­eign­ers are await­ing visas to be re­united with their fam­i­lies, and many of them have waited decades. There also are se­ri­ous racial over­tones to elim­i­nat­ing fam­ily cat­e­gories, which are cur­rently dom­i­nated by Asian and Latino im­mi­grants.

Fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion has been the bedrock of im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy since the na­tional ori­gins quota sys­tems of the 1920s, and it was reaf­firmed in the 1965 leg­is­la­tion that elim­i­nated racial pref­er­ences. In 1981, the Se­lect Com­mis­sion on Im­mi­gra­tion and Refugee Pol­icy again de­ter­mined that such poli­cies were in the na­tional in­ter­est, con­clud­ing that “psy­cho­log­i­cally and so­cially, the re­union of fam­ily mem­bers with their close rel­a­tives pro­motes the health and wel­fare of the United States.”

Let’s get some­thing else straight about fam­ily im­mi­grants — es­pe­cially the sib­lings and adult off­spring. They en­ter the United States and im­me­di­ately go to work, help­ing to sup­port the So­cial Se­cu­rity sys­tem and fill­ing a range of jobs in which, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics, there is go­ing to be a short­age of work­ers in the com­ing years.

It also doesn’t take much more than a stroll through any neigh­bor­hood in Cal­i­for­nia to re­al­ize that many of th­ese work­ing-class, kin­ship im­mi­grants are the ones who open small busi­nesses — restau­rants, gro­ceries, light in­dus­try — that cre­ate jobs and gen­trify neigh­bor­hoods.

Any thor­ough re­con­sid­er­a­tion of im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy must take into ac­count how the na­tion has ben­e­fited eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially from our fam­ily­based sys­tem. It may be im­pos­si­ble to cal­cu­late the value of re­uni­fi­ca­tion, but we could be­gin by think­ing of our own fam­i­lies — in­clud­ing our sib­lings and older chil­dren. How less pro­duc­tive would we be if we were con­stantly wor­ried about their sus­te­nance or safety? How more pro­duc­tive are we when we know that we can come home at the end of the day and en­joy their com­pany?

Repub­li­cans claim that there is a ten­sion be­tween re­tain­ing fam­ily im­mi­gra­tion and adding em­ploy­ment-based im­mi­gra­tion. But that’s a false di­chotomy. There is only ten­sion if we ac­cept the premise that visas are a scarce re­source. If, in­stead, we view the two sys­tems as com­ple­men­tary ways of achiev­ing and re­flect­ing our goals and val­ues as a so­ci­ety, then we don’t have a ten­sion prob­lem at all.

In other words, if we use im­mi­gra­tion to help our econ­omy, to pro­mote the so­cial wel­fare of the coun­try and to pro­mote fam­ily val­ues, then fam­ily and em­ploy­ment cat­e­gories to­gether can meet those goals.

In an era of pro­mot­ing fam­ily val­ues, pro­pos­als to elim­i­nate fam­ily im­mi­gra­tion cat­e­gories seem en­tirely out of step. What’s the mes­sage? Brothers and sis­ters are not im­por­tant? Once chil­dren reach a cer­tain age, they need not bond with their par­ents? Elim­i­nat­ing such cat­e­gories in­sti­tu­tion­al­izes an anti-fam­ily mes­sage.

The pre­am­ble to the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights high­lights the unity of the fam­ily as the “foun­da­tion of free­dom, jus­tice and peace in the world.” And for good rea­son. Our fam­i­lies de­fine us as hu­man be­ings. Our fam­i­lies are at the cen­ter of our most trea­sured val­ues. Our fam­i­lies make us whole. Our fam­i­lies make the na­tion strong. Bill Ong Hing, a pro­fes­sor of law and Asian Amer­i­can stud­ies at UC Davis, wrote “De­port­ing Our Souls —Val­ues, Moral­ity and Im­mi­gra­tion Pol­icy.”

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