Green Card Policy Conundrum: Families, Employees or Both?

In January, the bipartisan Senate working group, dubbed the Gang of Eight, released a blueprint for immigration reform. They pledged, among other things, to “build the American economy and strengthen American families.” [See Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform from Senators Chuck Schumer, John McCain, Dick Durbin, Lindsey Graham, Robert Menendez, Marco Rubio, Michael Bennet, and Jeff Flake, 29.Jan.2013.] The blueprint was only intended as a starting point for further negotiations of the details, once first principles were agreed upon. Now comes the hard part: crafting specific policy provisions that will build a new comprehensive immigration reform bill on the framework established by the Gang of Eight.

Green cards are proving to be a particularly sticky issue, an object lesson in the difficulties of translating blueprints into three-dimensional reality. Earlier this month, Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading GOP negotiator on the Gang of Eight, proposed that Congress provide more employment-based green cards by restricting the availability of family-based green cards to immediate family members. [See Senate Immigration Bill May Limit Family Visas, by Erica Werner, Associated Press, 14.Mar.2013.] According to the AP, Senator Graham would like to abolish the green card categories for married children and siblings of U.S. citizens; if enacted, this would mark “a significant change to U.S. immigration policy that’s long favored family ties over economic or job criteria.”

This set off alarm bells in the immigrant community, and now many advocacy organizations are mobilizing to protect family-based immigration. Writing in The Hill, a leading news outlet for Capitol insiders, Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), warned that the current system is already broken: it “keeps loved ones apart, often for decades.” [See Respect Family Unit in Immigration Reform, by Deepa Iyer, The Hill, Congress Blog, 14.Mar.2013.]

The situation would only get worse, Iyer cautions, if green cards were limited to immediate family members only:

“As of November 2012, around 4.3 million people were waiting to obtain visas in order to join their family members who reside in the United States. A significant number – 1.8 million – are seeking to unite with immediate relatives who are AsianAmericans. Family members from China, India, and the Philippines, for example, have been waiting between 10 and 23 years to receive visas that will enable them to join their U.S. citizen or permanent resident relatives in America.”

Why not simply make more green cards available for both family-based and employment-based immigrants? Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Associated Press that Congress should do just that, and called on Senator Graham to recognize “the social costs for not preserving families in the immigration system,” because “immigrant families do strengthen our social fabric.”

Historically, the AP notes, Congress has resisted expanding the pool of green cards. Perhaps the time has come to rethink that, so we can give more cards to STEM graduates and high-tech workers without forcing family-based applicants to wait even longer for their green cards. What we need is a win-win solution that works for everyone: a solution that makes good on the Gang of Eight’s promise to “build the American economy and strengthen American families.”

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