Wednesday February 27, 2013
Family or economy?
By ERICA WERNER
The United States is mulling over focusing its immigration policy on employment prospects, rather than family reunion.
IF America is a nation of immigrants, it’s also a nation of immigrants’ husbands, wives, parents and children – and their brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews too.
That could begin to change under legislation being written in the US Senate, where the nation’s longstanding emphasis on family-based immigration is coming under scrutiny.
Unlike most other industrialised nations, the United States awards a much larger proportion of permanent residency status to family members of US citizens and permanent residents than to foreigners with job prospects in the country. About two-thirds of permanent legal immigration to the US is family-based, compared with about 15% that is employment-based, according to the US Migration Policy Institute. The remainder is largely humanitarian.
It’s a lopsided ratio that may change under a bill being crafted by a Senate bipartisan negotiating group.
Several senators involved in the talks said employment-based immigration must increase to help American competitiveness and the US economy. High-tech companies have been pleading for more workers, and some Republicans, in particular, believe the educational backgrounds and employment potential of prospective immigrants should be a bigger part of the calculus in awarding green cards, the permanent resident visas that are the key step towards citizenship.
“In the 21st century, more of our immigration needs to be based on merit and skill,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the “Gang of Eight” senators negotiating an immigration bill.
The senators’ proposals are still evolving and details remain unclear. For advocates of family-based immigration, the key question has become whether the increased focus on employment-based immigration will come in addition to the family-based system – or to its detriment.
“Family unity has been the cornerstone of our immigration system for decades and should remain so,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We’re concerned that the family-based system is vulnerable and that visas could be taken away or categories could be eliminated, and we would strongly oppose that.”
Under current law, US citizens can petition to bring their spouses, parents and minor unmarried children into the country without any limit on the number coming in. There are caps on all other categories, including petitions for citizens’ adult or married children, citizens’ brothers and sisters and their children, and the immediate family members of legal permanent residents. The law also caps the percentage of immigrants that can come from any one country in a year.
These limitations have led to a backlog of more than four million family members of US citizens and permanent residents who must wait in their home countries for years before coming to the US. Filipinos in the sibling category can face waits of more than 20 years before they can join family there, advocates said.
Maricris Arce, 43, a native of the Philippines who now lives in Anaheim, California, said she was separated from her husband for five years after coming legally to the US, and he wasn’t present for the birth of their first child.
“I think they need to change that law,” Arce said. “Let them come faster and easier so the family will be united.”
US President Barack Obama and the Senate negotiators have committed to reducing the existing backlog of people waiting for family visas, and this would probably happen by adding visas to speed up the process. The bill would also probably raise the country cap that limits any one country to 7% of total immigrants per year, probably to 15%.
Those changes are good news for advocates of family immigration, who are also encouraged by Obama’s longstanding commitment to family unification and pledges by Democrats in the negotiating group to safeguard the family system. Obama is preparing his own immigration bill to unveil if the Senate process stalls.
The more contentious decisions will surround whether any of the current family categories – such as sibling – is reduced or eliminated. Lawmakers have made such attempts in the past, arguing that a focus on immediate family members is more appropriate.
It also remains to be seen whether lawmakers choose to make more green cards available overall, as advocates want, or shift visas from the family category to boost employment categories. Another question is how quickly illegal immigrants who would be put on a path to citizenship by the new bill could petition to reunite with family members.
Advocates say senators could end up crafting a hybrid system that weights family ties in addition to work skills, something Rubio suggested could happen.
“We’re still going to have a family-based part of it. I believe that having family in the US is one of the indicators of success,” said Rubio, who’s talked about his own family members from Cuba coming to the US through the family immigration system. “It’s just some of the folks that are coming on family-based will be able to come on the skill-based as well. They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Depending on how it’s crafted, any new system could become an unexpected flashpoint in the immigration debate. Senators say they’ll attempt to strike a balance, but some fear that in the end, more job-based immigration could come at the expense of family members overseas.
“We’re going to expedite some of the family stuff initially, but over time it’s got to be more merit-based,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of the Senate negotiators. –AFP