Asian lawmakers fear changes to visa program would keep families apart

Asian-American lawmakers and advocates are troubled by changes to family-sponsored visas in the Senate’s immigration bill.

The legislation’s new merit-based visa program has not won over critics who are worried that tweaks to the visa petition process could keep immigrant families apart.

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Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), co-chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus’s (CAPAC) immigration taskforce, is among those concerned about the Senate bill’s treatment of family-sponsored visas. 

“I support family reunification. I support a definition of families that goes beyond the nuclear family,” Honda said. 

Honda said he and other CAPAC members met this week with aides to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate’s Gang of Eight that drafted the bill, to discuss immigration reform issues, including the family visas. 

“Sen. Schumer understands that this is an issue, but their comments are like — the Gang of Eight made an agreement, that there had to be consensus,” Honda said. “I still think there is ... room for a change, and I think the amendment process is going to kick in.” 

The Senate bill eliminates one category of family visas for siblings of U.S. citizens, which total about 65,000 per year. The legislation also scales back another category — married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, which is allotted 23,400 visas per year — by limiting it to married children who are under the age of 31.

The Senate bill would replace the old system with a new merit-based visa program that would initially give out 120,000 visas per year and raise the number to a maximum cap of 250,000, depending on demand and the unemployment rate. Immigrants would be able to earn points toward obtaining merit visas on a set of criteria that include family ties.  

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), a CAPAC member, said the goal of Wednesday’s meeting with Schumer’s office was two-fold. First, the caucus wanted to pressure the bill’s authors to reconsider the elimination of the sibling visas. Second, it wanted to get a better sense of how the merit-based visa program would operate “in hopes that it won’t be too burdensome on the Asian community.”

Meng said Schumer’s staff was sympathetic, but also noted the bill is a bipartisan compromise, not a Democratic wish list.

“It’s not the first time they’ve heard our concerns,” Meng said. “But they also reiterated … how difficult it is that all eight members of the Gang of Eight agree on every provision.” 

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), CAPAC’s chairwoman, said the group “made it a mission” to lobby each member of the Gang of Eight during the group’s drafting of the package, which led to several changes in the bill. 

“But on the sibling category, yes, we are concerned that it is eliminated entirely,” Chu said. “They tried to accommodate [the repeal] by saying that in the merit system … you have points for having that sibling relationship, [but] of course it’s not as good as having a category in and of itself.  

“It is true that some might come in through the merit system,” Chu added, “but I suspect that there would be far fewer than what there is right now.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D), another CAPAC member who represents a large number of Asian immigrants in his northern Virginia district, said the concerns are justified. 

“You’ve got to tread lightly on putting barriers up against family unification,” Connolly said. “The system has to be humanitarian as well as practical.”

Advocates decry the proposed system as a shift away from a family-based immigration process.  

“It’s a fundamental shift in our immigration process. We think family should be a priority because it gives the nation a social fabric and it keeps families together, which is the core of healthy society,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Other criteria in the merit-based program include education and work skills. Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the new system could place huge roadblocks in front of some immigrants.

“A woman who has been working from home, coming from a more traditional environment where there is less education for women, those women are going to be severely disadvantaged in this new merit-based visa system,” Chen said.  

Asian immigrants are heavy users of family visas. By November 2012, Asians made up about 40 percent of those waiting for a family visa, according to a State Department study. Mainland China, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam rank among the top countries that have immigrants waiting for family visas as siblings of U.S. citizens — the category that will be ended under the Senate bill. 

“The way that most Asian-Americans have been able to come to the United States is really through the family system,” said Mee Moua, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center. 

Many will be looking to change the Senate bill as it moves through Congress, including those advocating for family visas. 

“There are going to be attempts to improve this area, and there will be a fight over it. There will be amendments offered. It’s all part of the regular process,” Appleby said. 

That process could begin in the Senate. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) has been critical of the proposed changes to family visas. The freshman senator sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she could offer an amendment to the Senate bill when the panel marks up the legislation.

“She will be looking for opportunities to improve the bill for families,” said Nathan Click, a Hirono spokesman.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s first markup session for the immigration bill is on May 9. Connolly said he’s not privy to the immigration talks in the House, but he’s hoping the negotiators act on CAPAC’s concerns before they release a final bill.

“It’s a lot easier to fix it while it’s in draft, than afterwards,” he said.