Senate Democrats want U.S. residency for kin of immigrant service members

Six Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to grant permanent residency to family members of immigrants actively serving in the U.S. military — even in cases where the service member has died.

The Military Families Act, by Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.), Mary Landrieu, Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Kristin Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.), isn’t expected to receive a floor vote anytime soon, with the Senate racing to pass healthcare reform by the end of the year. For now, the bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.

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The idea isn’t new — Menendez introduced the same bill a year ago — but the issue of immigration has been largely dormant in the Senate since the bruising battles of 2006 and 2007. Inouye has also pushed before for a provision in the bill that would cover children of Filipino World War II veterans.

The bill has drawn together an unusual cross-section of Senate Democrats from the party’s various wings — for example, Feingold, one of the more liberal members of the caucus, and Landrieu, one of the more conservative. No Republicans have signed on in support so far.

The bill is already drawing the praise of immigration-rights advocates. Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, called the bill “a reminder that our immigration system is badly broken.”

“The Senate has delivered a well-deserved tribute to our immigrant soldiers and their families. Those who serve our nation - and their families who also make great sacrifices - deserve the full range of what our nation has to offer, including a path towards U.S. citizenship," Giovagnoli said.

Likewise, Bernard Wolsdorf, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, noted that immigrants comprise an increasing percentage of military service members. He said the bill “will help ensure that families of those that have served our country with pride and valor don’t face unfair and unexpected deportation.”

Under the bill, Homeland Security officials would be authorized to grant residency to immediate family members — parents, spouses and children — of active-duty Armed Forces members. Immediate relatives of service members would also receive residency if the member died of an injury or disease due to his or her service.

A report released this month by the Immigration Policy Council cites a high, continuing need for immigrants in the U.S. military, not only for basic recruitment needs but also for translators and interpreters.

As of June 30, the report notes there are 114,601 foreign-born individuals serving in the armed forces, or almost 8 percent of the 1.4 million total military personnel on active duty. In the current fiscal year, the report notes more than 10,500 military service members were granted U.S. residency.