Immigration reform and the importance of family

Family is central to the holiday season in America: spending days at home together, traveling to visit family, sharing meals, and exchanging gifts.  Most of us take for granted that we’ll be with family this holiday season—and likely next holiday season as well.  But, we must remember the millions of hardworking people living in the United States who are still waiting for Congress to act so that they, too, can be with their loved ones at this time of year. 

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As the United States Senate’s only immigrant, the issue of immigration reform is personal to me.  My mother brought me to America on the S.S. President Cleveland in steerage from Japan when I was almost eight years old.  Like most immigrants, mom had a dream that she could provide a better life for our family in the United States.  She was a single parent who escaped from an abusive marriage in Japan.  We started with very little, but we had each other.  And with our family support, we worked hard to pursue the American dream.  My mother changed my life by bringing me to this country, a country which afforded opportunities for a poor immigrant family like ours to make a better life. 

Under today’s broken immigration system, many immigrants do not have the family support that is so critical to success—and so fundamental to who we are as a country.  There are Filipino World War II veterans still waiting to be reunited with their children; there are families separated by visa backlogs that last years and even decades; and there are mothers and fathers being torn from their children because they don’t have the right paperwork.  

These families wouldn’t have to endure another holiday season separated from their loved ones if we passed immigration reform.  Despite receiving the Senate’s bipartisan bill over a year ago, the House Republicans left Washington this month without even giving comprehensive immigration reform an up-or-down vote.

However, there is still reason for hope.  Just before Thanksgiving, President Obama used his executive authority to provide limited discretionary deportation relief to some undocumented mothers, fathers, and students living in our country.  The President’s executive action has given these families some peace of mind, albeit temporary, that they now won’t be torn from their families and communities and be deported if certain conditions are met.  As Nevada student and DREAMer Astrid Silva testified in a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the President’s action that I chaired, at the very least she now knows that her dad will still be with her and her family this Christmas.

Rather than stepping up to provide permanent solutions for immigration reform, my Republican friends are taking a page out of the Grinch’s playbook.  They’re choosing to spend their energy working to undo the President’s action at the expense of families like Astrid’s, rather than constructively working with the rest of us to pass the commonsense, humane reform that Americans overwhelmingly support. 

Immigration reform legislation should not only keep families together, it should be good for our economy.  And it is.  Even with temporary actions like President Obama’s, allowing undocumented persons to come out of the shadows and work will generate billions in payroll taxes and is expected to lead to higher wages and increased worker protections for the entire workforce.  The benefit to our economy and communities when all 11 million undocumented people can step out of the shadows, work legally, and pay their taxes will be additional billions to stimulate our economy.

Immigration reform isn’t just a Latino or border state issue.  It matters to all communities, like Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and all states—including my own state of Hawaii.  Immigration reform should matter to all of us who understand the importance of family as we make it through life.  I hope this holiday season, when we’re enjoying dinner or opening gifts or sitting in the pew at church, that we can think about those in this country who are still waiting to one day share those moments with their families, too.

Sen. Hirono is the only immigrant in the U.S. Senate.

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