On June 27th, the comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill being weighed and amended in Congress since mid-April passed in the U.S. Senate chambers. The bill captured 68 out of 100 votes, with 14 of them belonging to Senate Republicans.

S. 744, or the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, ends the threat of deportation for most undocumented immigrants within six months and provides an estimated 11 million immigrants — a million of whom are Asian and Pacific Islander (API) — a smoother pathway to citizenship. The Senate Bill proposal would create a new Registered Provisional Immigrant status for those who enter the country prior to January 1, 2012. In creating similar status bridges to citizenship, an expedited — albeit 13-yearlong — citizenship track would also be available for agricultural workers and DREAM Act-eligible immigrants who entered the country before reaching age 16.

To much controversy, the bill also stipulates that — within six months of new immigration law enactment — the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security will develop a plan to apprehend nine out of 10 immigrants who unlawfully enter the U.S. through the U.S.-Mexico border, requiring an increase in border security surveillance, fences, agents and drones along the border to a degree that represents “the most militarized border” since the Berlin Wall, as Sen. John Cain told CNN a couple of days before the bill passed in Senate.

And the laws shift the U.S. visa system from a family-based system to a merit-based system that considers both skills and family ties, which has a large impact on APIs hoping to enter the states through family sponsorship. In 2012, nearly 86 percent of visas issued were to immigrants from Asian countries, according to the Asian American Justice Center. And currently the backlog for aspiring U.S. immigrants sponsored by a family member is 4.3 million, with those from Asian countries accounting for nearly half on the waiting list.

Within a period of three to five years, the bill aims to eliminate a growing backlog of acquiring visas by “recapturing un-used visas and making other visas available to bring family members in on a much more expedited basis,” said Rich Stolz, executive director of immigrant rights organization OneAmerica.

Some visa categories were eliminated, and some were added.  The bill jettisons the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which grants 55,000 green cards each year to immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration. The bill would also eliminate the entire F4-category for U.S. citizens to petition for their siblings, effective 18 months after the bill is enacted, as well as impose a limit on the petition age of married children of U.S. citizens to 31 years old under the F3 category.

At the same time, the bill also creates two new visa tracks. The first track provides an additional 120,000 visas given based on a merit points system that considers the applicant’s age, education, U.S. worker demands and family ties to the U.S. If the unemployment rate remained 8.5 percent after these visas were first issued, the number of visas available under this track could increase up to 5 percent per year. The second track is reserved for family and employment petitions that have been pending for at least five years after a period decided post-enactment. This track is also for immigrants who have been lawfully residing in the states with work authorization for more than 10 years.

API advocacy organizations argue that the CIR bill is a major shift away from family-based immigration — hindering immigration for women who may not have had higher education opportunities that would ultimately put them at an advantage with the new merit-based point system.

“The current Senate bill is a radical departure from the historic 1965 immigration law that allowed for immigration based on family ties,” said Jenny Seon, director of the Immigrant Rights Project at the Korean Resource Center during a national call organized by National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) the day before the Senate vote. “The current Senate bill will eliminate and limit the rights of U.S. citizens to sponsor siblings and married older children. Separated family members are crying out against this attack on families.”

Simeon Pagtan, 80, petitioned for his daughter to immigrate from the Philippines this year. Photo credit: International Examiner.
Simeon Pagtan, 80, petitioned for his daughter to immigrate from the Philippines this year. Photo credit: International Examiner.

As immigrant advocates continue pushing to ensure undocumented immigrants will have a better pathway to citizenship and legislation passes with provisions to address a backlog of four million visa applications, the U.S. House of Representatives begin hashing out their own bill. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee told the Associated Press that it’s unllikely the House bill will offer “a special pathway to citizenship” for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that would benefit from the Senate version of the bill.

“What’s emerging out of the House Judiciary Committee is just a bunch of piecemeal, enforcement-style bills,” said Stolz of OneAmerica. “We’re in the process of analyzing the four bills they’ve passed so far. And the [judiciary committee’s] thinking is, pass a series of bills, package them, take them to the House floor, and that [product will be] what they’ll take with them in conference with the Senate. Our goal is to make sure that whatever the House takes to the Senate or passes out includes a path to citizenship. It’s going to be a hard lift, but that’s the goal.”

Stolz hopes the House passes their immigration bill by the end of July, and expects conference negotiations on different versions of the bill happen in September or October for a final bill to get to President Obama’s desk to sign in October or November.

The Impact of Visa Backlogs on Family Reunification

Simeon Pagtan, a Port Orchard, Wash. resident, immigrated to the states from the Philippines in 2006, a process that took 20 years after a visa petition his daughter submitted in 1986, due to the historically high backlog of family visa applications from the Philippines.

This year, he obtained his citizenship, and immediately submitted an application to bring his younger daughter to the states. But “because we’re already old — I am 80 years old and then my wife is 77 — I don’t know if we will be still living before our daughter’s petition will be approved,” Pagtan said.

If he and his wife do not live to see this approval — expected to happen between 15 and 20 years — then the petition will be cancelled. Pagtan, who came from the Northern Philippine municipality of Mountain Province as a struggling farmer, just wants his daughter to have better opportunities in the states, following the legacy of family members who immigrated before him.

Xiaojian Zhong and Binlan Fang. Photo credit: International Examiner.
Xiaojian Zhong and Binlan Fang. Photo credit: International Examiner.

“It was my dream [to immigrate to the states]  because my grandfather came here,” he said.

Seattle residents and Chinese immigrants Xiaojian Zhong, 80, and his wife Binlan Fang, 73, have been in the states for nearly eight years. At the end of 2011, Zhong filed a petition to bring his daughter over to the states.

“Based on the current schedule, he has to wait about 10 years to be able to reunite with his daughter,” says Xiangping Chen, a citizenship program coordinator at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) who works with Zhong and Fang.

Like Pagtan, they worry they won’t live to see their youngest daughter immigrate, and that if they die, their application for her petition will be cancelled.

“I feel like if I have some family around me, then when we get older, she can always take care of us,” said Fang.

Their eldest daughter in the states just recently filed for another petition under the F4 sibling category to ensure the petition won’t be cancelled should they pass on before the first petition Zhong filed is approved.

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