Immigrants have families too
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.”