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.


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 SchumerChuck SchumerRomney: I never got a call from White House to discuss voting rights Kyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage Joe Biden's disastrous 48 hours 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 BecerraThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden to make voting rights play in Atlanta Democrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Overnight Health Care — Insurance will soon cover COVID-19 tests 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 Antonio RubioHow a nice-guy South Dakota senator fell into a Trump storm Republicans threaten floor takeover if Democrats weaken filibuster  Democrats must close the perception gap MORE (R-Fla.) and Rep. Luis GutierrezLuis Vicente GutierrezIllinois Democrats propose new 'maximized' congressional map Biden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic primary fight shifts to South Carolina, Nevada 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 Keiko HironoDems worry they'll be boxed out without changes to filibuster, voting rules  Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two Senate Judiciary Committee to debate key antitrust bill 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."