This week, the Senate “Gang of 8” may unveil their proposal for comprehensive reform. Immigrant advocates are concerned, however, that it will include provisions shifting away from a family-based system to an employment-based system. Democrats, faith groups, and labor unions favor the former, while Republicans back the latter. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Washington Post that his goal is “to replace a chained migration immigration system with an economic-based immigration system.”
Graham has it wrong. Family unity must remain the cornerstone of our immigration policy. An employment-based system flies in the face of American values of equality and fairness. Keeping families together is good for immigrants, good for society, and good for the economy.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, about two-thirds of legal immigrants are admitted for family reasons, and 14 percent for employment (the rest come on humanitarian grounds). Now Republicans want to give more preference to skilled workers. Early reports suggest that the Senate plan would eliminate preferences allowed for green-card holders to sponsor siblings and married adult children. While the numbers involved are relatively small – these categories account for only 90,000 visas annually – the broader implications are tremendous.
Our immigration system is based on family reunification because it upholds our democratic ideals. If we began to favor immigration based on merit, skills, and employment prospects, we would be discriminating against women around the world who do not have access to higher education and certain professions. We would be sending the message that our country welcomes the elite, rather than all people.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) does not believe that immigrants should have the right to petition for family members to join them. “Just because it’s painful—you made a choice to come to America— [that] doesn’t necessarily mean [you] get to bring your aging parents or your brother and sister. It just does not mean that,” he said in a House Judiciary Committee meeting last month. He overlooks the reality that extended families are the backbone of immigrant communities. Immigrants survive and thrive because they have a support system of relatives to help them create new lives.
Family immigrants grow our economy by finding jobs, paying taxes, buying goods and services, and starting businesses. Consider Jerry Yang, the co-founder of Yahoo, and Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google. They seem to be exactly the type of immigrant that Republicans would favor admitting based on their high-tech skills. Yet both Yang (from Taiwan), and Brin (from the Soviet Union) came to the U.S. as children on family visas. If we organize our system away from family preferences, we might miss out on the next Internet entrepreneur.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a member of the Senate “Gang of 8 says, “In the 21st century, more of our immigration needs to be based on merit and skill.” This is ironic, because in Cuba his father was a security guard and his mother was a cashier. Rubio’s uncle, aunt, and grandparents were all able to enter the country based on family ties. Rubio is living proof that our family-based immigration system can result in spectacular success. His American dream would have been impossible under a system that evaluated employment prospects or qualifications.
Yes, our immigration system is dysfunctional, in part due to the backlog of family-based immigration petitions. The solution is not to eliminate visa categories. The solution is to clear the backlog, or add more visas. Immigration is not a zero-sum game; we can have more visas for skilled workers without reducing those for family members.
Immigration reform should not pit economic interests against family interests. The Senate must protect our family-based visa categories. All immigrants add value to society, not just those with PhDs.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.