Photo caption: Photo from Center for American Progress.

The debate over how America reforms its immigration system is heating up in Congress. In April, immigrant communities can expect a bipartisan group of United States Senators called “The Gang of Eight” and a separate group in the House of Representatives to introduce legislation intended to fix what’s broken in our immigration system. Yet, with the introduction of both bills, the debate over who belongs in this country is really only just beginning.

In mid-March,  media outlets reported that immigration reform negotiators in the Senate were prepared to shift a significant number of visas away from the family-based immigration system toward an employment-based immigration system. As described, this is an unacceptable trade-off that takes directly from one program to support another. This direction — if it bears out in legislation expected from the “Gang of Eight” early next month — unnecessarily pits family interests against the interests of corporations and businesses.

Underlying this proposal are important biases that need to be made clear. Those who would take from the family-based visa system to advantage employment-based immigration are implicitly agreeing with immigration opponents who have long sought to limit legal immigration to the U.S. These opponents use alarmist language about “chain migration,” suggesting that the integrity of America’s demography or cultural identity were somehow at risk.

The important distinction between family-based immigration and employment-based immigration cannot only be characterized as uneducated versus educated or poor versus wealthy. The critical distinction can be more accurately described as connected to family and therefore, community, versus connected to employer. The goal of employment-based immigration is to identify an individual worker who can bring specific value to a company.  The goal in family-based immigration is to make families whole, and to entrust family networks to ensure the long-term integration of new immigrants into American society.

Family visas appear to be equated with burdens on the federal government. However, family-based visa programs are part of America’s success. Family networks are crucial to the social and economic integration of immigrants, ensuring that new arrivals are not isolated and have support systems that allow them to get established. At the same time, immigrants that have family support are more likely to be able to climb up the economic ladder and weather periods of difficult health or economic periods. Family ties also facilitate the formation of immigrant communities which, in turn, offer fertile environments for the development of businesses.

Furthermore, family and skill-based immigration must not be viewed as mutually exclusive. If Congress adopted a less family-friendly admission policy, the U.S. could become a less attractive destination for highly skilled immigrants who also have families.

And as U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren noted recently in a House Judiciary Committee hearing: “I often say I am glad that Google is in Mountain View rather than Moscow. Like eBay, Intel and Yahoo!, Google was founded by an immigrant. But it’s worth noting that none of the founders of these companies came to the U.S. because of their skills.”

Therefore, it is important that any comprehensive immigration reform proposal strongly embrace the principle of family preference. This should apply in rapidly reducing current backlogs in the family visa program and maintaining an ongoing commitment to family-based visas in the future.

Family is a cornerstone of American values, but our broken system often hurts families by keeping families apart for years through red tape, bureaucracy and harsh enforcement tactics. As of November 2012, nearly 4.3 million loved ones are waiting in family visa backlogs. Mexico has the largest backlog with more than 1.3 million close family members in line. Family members from Asian countries — the top four being the Philippines, India, Vietnam and mainland China — also face devastatingly long wait times, with more than 1.8 million loved ones combined waiting abroad for the chance to reunite. Some family members have been waiting years and even decades to be reunited with their family members in the United States.

At a recent event organized by Sen. Patty Murray, an elderly Filipino American lamented that he petitioned for his daughters to come to the United States to reunite the family, but given the current visa backlogs, his daughters will have to wait 20 years before they can come to the U.S., and he may not live that long.

Earlier last month, a strong OneAmerica and SEIU leader in the Tongan community expressed her own frustration with the length of time it has taken for her own siblings to come to the United States to be reunited with her family, and the hardships this placed on her family. These backlogs contribute, in part, to illegal immigration, and the matter of family separation is deeply felt in the Asian American and Latino communities here in Washington state.

This is why the Washington State Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC) and OneAmerica have worked together on a campaign called “It’s Our Issue Too” to galvanize support for comprehensive immigration reform in our community.  It is why 1,000 Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs) from across the state joined our Latino brothers and sisters and others who support a fair immigration system at a rally in downtown Seattle in 2010, and why approximately 1,000 petitions were delivered to our Congressional delegation call for comprehensive immigration reform.  This is why in the same year four Asians were arrested with a rainbow of 20 activists calling for comprehensive immigration reform in a nonviolent civil disobedience action to draw attention to the urgency of the issue.  It is also why 50 organizations in the API community recently sent a letter to our Senators urging them to use their leadership to ensure inclusion of family reunification in any immigration reform bill.

Please make sure that our families are not left behind by contacting your Senators and Congressional Representative now to tell them how important family-based immigration is to our communities and our country. Family advocates can join us in calling the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

To learn more about the APIC/OneAmerica campaign “It’s Our Issue Too,” please visit

BY Diane Narasaki and Rich Stolz
IE Contributors
Diane Narasaki is the executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS). Rich Stolz  serves as executive director of OneAmerica.

Previous articleArts, Etc – 3/20/2013
Next articleOp-Ed: Dialogue Can Prevent and Heal Sexual Violence