Democrats seek to ease Asian American concerns over family visa changes

Democrats on the front lines of immigration reform are reaching out to Asian Americans this month in an effort to ease concerns over family visas.

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As part of the Senate's sweeping reform package, some family visas would be scaled back while others would be eliminated altogether — changes that have dismayed advocates for Asian immigrants, who benefit disproportionately from those programs.

Attempting to alleviate those worries, Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerCruz's dad: Trump 'would be worse than Hillary Clinton' With Ryan’s blessing, lawmakers press ahead with tax reform talks Big business will never appease the Left MORE (D-N.Y.), one of the eight co-authors of the Senate bill, held a conference call Friday with Asian American leaders, while Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraHouse panel moves bill to ban IRS from tracking donors to tax-exempt groups Dems bullish on immigration case House GOP comes to terms with prospect of no budget MORE (D-Calif.), one of the eight lawmakers crafting a separate House bill, told another Asian American group that he is making family unity a top priority of those talks.

"I am here to pledge to you that, as the chairman of the Democratic Caucus, as a negotiator on this immigration reform [bill], there is no true, complete fix to our immigration system until … everyone who is signed up to have their loved one, immediate relative, come into this country – whether a citizen or lawful permanent resident – has a chance to bring that family member to America," Becerra said last Wednesday, addressing a crowd gathered for the annual Capitol Hill conference of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC).

The lobbying from lawmakers highlights both the delicacy and the high stakes of the negotiations surrounding an issue that's been a dead-end in Washington for roughly a generation. 

November's elections have opened a rare political window for supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, and the chief proponents — including voices as diverse as Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate confirms Obama's long-stalled ambassador to Mexico Sanders is most popular senator, according to constituent poll Toomey: 'Outrageous' for Dems to tie me to Trump MORE (R-Fla.) and Rep. Luis GutierrezLuis GutierrezRyan meets with Hispanic Caucus to talk Puerto Rico Report: Latino leaders plan Chicago protest against Trump Long lines keep casino workers from Nevada caucuses MORE (D-Ill.) — have been on a months-long media blitz designed to sell the overhaul to wary voters and lawmakers alike.

While the most vocal opposition to the Senate proposal has come from conservatives, some of the grumbling has come also from a handful of groups on the left, including CAPAC and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which is critical of language eliminating a diversity visa program that's benefitted African and Caribbean immigrants.

CAPAC's chief concerns revolve around Senate provisions to eliminate sibling-based visas and limit eligibility for married children of U.S. citizens. The State Department estimated last year that roughly 40 percent of those in line for family visas are from Asia, particularly Southeast Asian countries like China, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam.

In an effort to fill the void, the Senate proposal would install a new merit-based visa program featuring a point system that would hinge on a number of factors, including education, employment and family ties. Still, both CAPAC and the CBC remain unconvinced the new program would compensate for the elimination of the existing visa programs.

Last week, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), a CAPAC member, wrote to Schumer urging him to reinstate the family visa programs that were eliminated or rolled back in the Senate bill. Anything less, she warned, would prove "detrimental to our immigration system and the American economy at large." 

"These shortcomings are a significant barrier to fully engaging the growing Asian American community in the dialogue and advocacy related to the pending immigration reform debate," Meng warned.

In his Friday conference call with Asian American advocates, Schumer sought to address those concerns, arguing that the Senate proposal would help Asian families significantly by reducing visa backlogs, said Meng, who was on the call. 

Meng said Schumer has been exceedingly receptive to CAPAC's worries, but he's also emphasized that the package is a compromise, and not all sides will get what they want. 

"He has a tough job," Meng conceded Friday by phone.

Sen. Mazie HironoMazie HironoCarter pledges probe of sex assault testimony GOP blocks slate of Obama judicial nominees Sanders takes Hawaii MORE, another CAPAC member, is pushing to amend the family visa provisions of the Senate bill this month in the Judiciary Committee. The Hawaii Democrat has sponsored no fewer than seven amendments related to family visas, including one to reinstate the sibling and married-children categories immediately and another to do so after 10 years.

Still, the amendments are among more than 300 filed by members of the Judiciary panel, which began marking up the bill last week and is scheduled to continue that process Tuesday. Even Hirono's office could not predict her proposals will get a public airing. 

In the House, meanwhile, it remains unclear how negotiators will approach the family-visa issue. Becerra told CACAP last week that "there can be no true, just immigration reform if you can't love your family here in America." But even Meng, who was in the audience, didn't interpret that message to be any hint of specific provisions to come in the House package. 

"I did not take what he said to be specific," she said. "I hope I'm wrong."