Labor, religious leaders join forces to defend family visas in immigration deal

Labor and religious leaders joined forces on Wednesday to defend family visas as senators finalize a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Officials with the AFL-CIO, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other groups are worried that the Senate’s Gang of Eight could reduce the number of visas granted to foreign family members of U.S. residents to bring more high-skilled tech workers into the country instead.

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They told reporters that reuniting immigrant families — often separated for years at a time while family member one works in the United States and children and the spouse remain back home — should be a key component of a comprehensive bill.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said immigrant families shouldn’t be separated for lengthy periods of time.

“Common-sense immigration reform should work to unite families, not divide them,” Trumka said.

“To deny them the opportunity to unite with their families is nothing less than a sin,” said United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño. “They are worthy of being able to live their lives with their families by their side.”

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs for the Catholic Bishops, said that a comprehensive bill should improve the family immigration process.

He advocated for reducing the backlogs and waiting times for immigrants to join their families in the United States and raising the cap on how many immigrants can come in from each country every year. Appleby said reuniting immigrant families can help contribute to the economy.

“We need a blend of economic ability in this country to move our nation forward. We shouldn’t have to pit one group against one other,” Appleby said.

“Immigrant families contribute to the economy. They start their own businesses. They help in the different areas of the economy that aren’t necessarily in the high-tech sector. It might not benefit Silicon Valley directly but it helps all of our communities across the country,” he added. “The bottom line, I think, is we don’t have to sacrifice the family system for the economic system.”

Religious leaders have been aggressively pushing for legislation on immigration reform this year.

The Evangelical Immigration Table is running ads on Christian radio during the congressional recess in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Texas advocating for immigration reform. The group has also run ads on Christian radio in South Carolina.

The group also plans to host a Day of Prayer and Action in Washington on April 17.

Labor has also been very active on lobbying for immigration reform and has made improving the family visa process a key priority.

After months of heated talks, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO were able to strike a deal on a new low-skilled-worker visa program this past weekend. That agreement has helped remove one of the major obstacles for a comprehensive immigration reform bill and is expected to make its way into Senate legislation.

Legislation is expected to be introduced and pick up speed once lawmakers return to Capitol Hill next week after their recess.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said there is “urgent need” to get the bill done, and has said he will move legislation quickly. However, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the Gang of Eight negotiating the bill, has pushed to slow the process, arguing that lawmakers will need to carefully weigh proposals and build public support.

Trumka told reporters on Wednesday that he favored an expedited process for the immigration bill.

“We have talked about this for years, years and years,” Trumka said. “It’s now time to move forward.”

Appleby said his group and others will continue to push for family visas, and if a strong family visa component is not included in the Senate bill, they have plenty of time to lobby to correct the legislation as it moves through Congress.

“This is the first inning of a nine-inning game,” Appleby said. “We will have many bites of the apple.”