Respect family unit in immigration reform

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Lawmakers need to fix the broken family-based immigration system through a framework that values the importance of family members. On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on “The Separation of Nuclear Families Under U.S. Immigration Law.”  The hearing’s title invites the question: How do we define a family?

Today, American families are configured in ways that recognize and respect both biological and interpersonal relationships between individuals. They can include single parents, same-sex couples, adopted children, grandparents raising grandchildren, and multiple generations of family members. In fact, the Census Bureau estimates that the number of multigenerational households increased from 3.9 million in 2000 to 5.1 million in 2010.

Despite this expansive understanding of American families, the definition of familial relationships becomes much more limited when the conversation turns to immigrants, with policymakers often ready to restrict particular avenues of family-based immigration. Historically, opposition to the family-based immigration system has been focused on denying U.S. citizens the opportunity to unite with their adult married children or siblings.

This means that the adult son or daughter of a U.S. citizen is separated from his or her parent for years and misses important family events, or the opportunity to care for an ailing parent. It means that a brother is not able to provide technical skills or support his U.S. citizen sister’s small business.

Families build support networks for each other and become the backbone of our communities, neighborhoods, and economy. Defining a family unit in the narrowest of ways – married adults raising children, for example - does not reflect the modern configurations of American families. Are we willing to exclude brothers and sisters, and married sons and daughters in our definition of a family unit, and to conclude that their lack of presence and support in our lives has no impact?

There is already a bill introduced in Congress – the Reuniting Families Act – which would preserve family-based immigration in practical ways. It would recapture unused family-sponsored visas, raise current per-country immigration limits, and reclassify spouses with green cards and same sex bi-national partners as immediate relatives. This is the direction that lawmakers should be heading in, as they develop a bipartisan plan to overhaul the immigration system.

As an immigrant myself who has benefited from family and employment based immigration, I am hopeful that the efforts to improve the immigration system will recognize the value of the love and support of our family members. Let’s not set a double standard in our understanding and treatment of families by forcing immigrants to be separated by loved ones in ways that most Americans could never imagine.  

Iyer is the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and the chairman of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA).

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