Immigration Bill Raises Questions Among Immigrant Families
Unlike most other industrialized nations, the U.S. awards a much larger proportion of green cards to family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents than to foreigners with job prospects here. About two-thirds of permanent legal immigration to the U.S. is family-based, compared with about 15 percent that is employment-based, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The remainder is largely humanitarian.
Several senators involved in the talks said employment-based immigration must increase to help American competitiveness and the U.S. economy. High-tech companies have been pleading for more workers, so educational backgrounds and employment potential of prospective immigrants might become a larger factor in awarding green cards, the permanent resident visas that are the key step toward citizenship.
For advocates of family-based immigration, the key question has become whether the increased focus on employment-based immigration will come in addition to the family-based system – or to its detriment.
Under current law, U.S. citizens can petition to bring their spouses, parents and minor unmarried children into the country without any limit on the number coming in. There are caps on all other categories, including petitions for citizens’ adult or married children, citizens’ brothers and sisters and their children and the immediate family members of legal permanent residents. The law also caps the percentage of immigrants that can come from any one country in a year.
Also, Americans with a foreign-born spouse of the opposite sex are able to get them resident visas, or green cards, with relative ease. But federal law does not allow Americans to petition for green cards for same-sex spouses or partners. Eventually, they face a choice of remaining in the country with the immigrant here illegally or leaving the United States.
Limitations have led to a backlog of more than 4 million family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who must wait in their home countries for years before coming to the U.S.
President Barack Obama and the Senate negotiators have committed to reducing the existing backlog of people waiting for family visas, and this would probably happen by adding visas to speed the process. The bill would also probably raise the country cap that limits any one country to 7 percent of total immigrants per year, probably to 15 percent.
The more contentious decisions will surround whether any of the current family categories – such as sibling – is reduced or eliminated. Some lawmakers argue that a focus on immediate family members is more appropriate. Other changes could mean that people who once would have eventually been eligible for U.S. citizenship wouldn’t have that opportunity.
It also remains to be seen whether lawmakers choose to make more green cards available overall or shift visas from the family category to boost employment categories. Another question is how quickly undocumented immigrants who would be put on a path to citizenship by the new bill could petition to reunite with family members.
Advocates say senators could end up crafting a hybrid system that weights family ties in addition to work skills. Depending on how it’s crafted, any new system could become an unexpected flashpoint in the immigration debate. In the last round of immigration negotiations in 2007, the Catholic Church ended up opposing action on the bill in part because of discomfort with a proposal that replaced the family-based system with one that awarded points based on job skills, English ability, education and family ties in handing out visas. It’s possible that some aspects of that approach may be adopted this time as well, according to a Senate aide.