Comprehensive immigration reform received a dramatic push forward last week as President Barack Obama highlighted the contentious issue in his State of the Union address Feb. 12, and as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. – seen as the Republicans’ shepherd on immigration – also highlighted reform in his rebuttal, delivered shortly after the president’s speech.
“As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. Now let's get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away,” said Obama to a standing ovation.
Two days later, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., reintroduced the Reuniting Families Act in Congress, stating that almost four and a half million people are experiencing unconscionable periods of time – often as long as two decades – before reuniting with their families in the U.S.
In a telephone interview from his district office, Honda told India-West he expected his measure to be part of a larger Congressional bill on comprehensive immigration reform. Acknowledging that his “friendlier” act might have a better chance of passing were it to stand alone, Honda said he didn’t want to “disembody the entire format.”
“Our system has not been updated in 20 years; it is dysfunctional,” proclaimed Honda, noting backlogs for family reunification visas as long as 20 years. More than half of those awaiting reunification visas are Indian Americans and other Asian Americans, he said.
Honda’s bill would increase per-country limits from seven percent to 10 percent, benefitting countries with higher demand, such as India and the Philippines. Visas unused from previous years due to bureaucratic delays can be recaptured for allocation.
Significantly, the Reuniting Families Act would cap the wait for a “green card” to 10 years, and would classify legal spouses, children and same-sex partners as immediate relatives to exempt them from the numerical caps on family immigration.
Honda said immigrants bring an economic advantage to the U.S. by creating jobs, purchasing homes and sending their children to U.S. colleges to equip them with skills necessary to the American economy.
Immigrants also play caregiver roles to an aging U.S. population, noted Honda in a statement.
The Act, which covers same-sex partners, was a deal-breaker when Honda introduced the measure in 2010. “Anxiety over same-sex issues is not the boogie-man it was then,” said Honda, opining that Congress had grown up since then.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, introduced Honda’s reunification ct in a media teleconference Feb. 14. “Families are under attack,” she stated, adding that she was shocked to hear at an earlier House hearing members of Congress proclaiming that brothers and sisters and the elderly need not be allotted permanent visas.
Noting various proposed bills currently on the table addressing comprehensive immigration reform, Chu said any immigration bill – including a proposal by the president and a similar proposition by a bipartisan group of senators, known as the “Gang of Eight.” (I-W, Feb. 7) – must include a road up to citizenship, contain protection for immigrant workers who are often employed at low-paying, “grunt-work” jobs, and promote family unity by reducing the backlog in immigrant visas.
Chu said House Majority Leader John Boehner has stated his willingness to get a comprehensive reform bill passed.
While the national dialogue following the president’s State of the Union address unfathomably focused on Rubio’s taking a sip from a water bottle, the Florida senator – widely seen as a possibility for a 2016 presidential run – used his family’s immigrant roots to promote comprehensive immigration reform, albeit with better border protection and a tighter employment verification system.
Rubio highlighted his immigrant upbringing – a bartender father who was undocumented when he arrived in the U.S., and a maid/cashier mother – to promote the benefits of immigrants, noting with pride that he still lives in the working-class neighborhood he grew up in.
“We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest. We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws,” said Rubio immediately after the president’s speech.
Last month, Obama unveiled a plan for immigration reform at a speech in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Obama announcement came on the heels of a similar immigration reform plan, announced a day earlier by the “Gang of Eight.” Both proposals are similar, offering probationary legal status to all undocumented residents who pass a background check, pay a fine and taxes, and go to the back of the line to attain permanent citizenship. Undocumented youth – known as DREAMERS – who were brought to the U.S. by their parents would also be fast-tracked for citizenship, without having to serve in the military or attend college, as Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – implemented in 2012 – currently requires.
Speaking at a New America Media teleconference Feb. 14, Frank Sharry, founder and director of America’s Voice, said most politicians and parties have incentive to get comprehensive immigration reform “across the goal line. Republicans want to get a new hearing from the many voters who have rejected them.”
“The momentum generated by the election has given a lot of hope,” he said.
At the same teleconference, Mee Moua, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, stated that immigration reform was “not just a Latino issue. The Asian community has been very much a player in this issue. Comprehensive immigration reform has already unleashed a significant impact in our community,” she said, referring to family reunification visa backlogs. A day later, AAJC launched a “Reuniting Families” campaign, which aims to engage politicians and others on the necessity of family-based immigration.