On immigration, focus on families

As Congress forges a bipartisan and comprehensive solution to our broken immigration system, we must preserve the cornerstone of our current system — family reunification. Throughout our nation’s history, immigrants have come to the United States with the hope of a better life for their families and themselves. Efficient, fair and effective avenues for legal, family-based immigration are vital to keeping America strong. 

Why is it necessary to have a focus on families? Families pool together resources to do what they can’t do alone: start and run businesses, create jobs, purchase homes and send their American children to college for the skills they’ll need to contribute to our economy and strengthen American industry. Families provide security for aging workforces. Families provide care for young children, the sick and the elderly, especially when other options remain unaffordable, so that breadwinners can contribute to our nation’s economy. 

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People with their families are happier, healthier and more able to succeed than those living apart for years on end. The healthier the community, the more expendable income is available, and the lower the burden on social services. There are other economic benefits, too, including the retention of remittances. Many workers now send substantial portions of their salary to family members abroad. But reform could reunite families and keep monies in the U.S.

Opponents of family immigration would like to see immigration reform legislation that eliminates the ability for U.S. citizens to sponsor their brothers and sisters for legal permanent residence. Sibling-sponsored immigration makes up only 6 percent of annual total immigration to the U.S. Eliminating this category would produce only a small reduction in immigration, but lead to great hardship for thousands of U.S. citizens and their loved ones. It would also ignore the historical and contemporary social and economic contributions of immigrant families, as well as immigration quotas and lengthy visa backlog that keep families separated for decades.

There is no question that our nation’s family-based immigration system is in dire need of improvement, with massive backlogs, arbitrary quotas and inhumane processes that keep families apart. It has not been updated in more than two decades. Its dysfunction keeps spouses, children, siblings and their parents separated for years and often decades.

Nearly 4.3 million people, including 1.8 million Asian and Pacific Islanders, are waiting in family immigration backlogs, for unconscionable periods of time, in order to reunite with their family members. Asian and Pacific Islander siblings wait decades in immigration backlogs. The wait time for a U.S. citizen petitioning for a brother or sister from the Philippines, for example, exceeds 20 years. U.S. citizens sponsoring a sibling in India wait, on average, 11 years before receiving a green card.

I continue to do my part in modernizing our legal immigration system. This month, I reintroduced the Reuniting Families Act, commonsense legislation that reduces family immigration visa backlogs and promotes humane and timely reunification of immigrant families. RFA would classify lawful permanent resident spouses, children and same-sex bi-national partners as “immediate relatives,” and exempt them from numerical caps on family immigration.

This legislation would recapture unused employment-based and family-sponsored visas lost to bureaucratic delay and address the decades-long backlogs for certain countries by raising the per-country immigration limits from 7 percent to 15 percent of total admissions. RFA also places a 10-year cap on wait times for all backlogged applicants, and increases the government’s discretion and flexibility in addressing numerous hardships, including family separation, caused by the three-year and 10-year bars.

Family immigration is the cornerstone of our immigration system, and it must not be compromised by myths and xenophobic sentiment. I have urged President Obama and my colleagues in Congress to support all provisions of the Reuniting Families Act in comprehensive immigration reform. I thank the president for affirming that family reunification cannot be sacrificed when developing a comprehensive immigration package.

Our nation urgently needs a legal immigration system that keeps families together. A practical and well-functioning family-based immigration system is the key to growing our communities and our economy by honoring our family values and reuniting families. 

We are a nation of immigrants, and our country deserves an immigration system that honors that legacy and supports key family values — like keeping families intact. This act represents a giant step forward in that commitment. It provides a blueprint that respects families, strengthens our economy and fixes a badly broken system. Every day Congress delays, more families face separation.

Honda is chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus’s immigration taskforce and vice chairman of the LGBT Caucus.