Four-year-old Mia Williams holds a sign during an immigration vigil outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices, Wednesday, April 10, 2013, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Immigration reform on the verge of seismic shift from family to worker-based system

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Pie is part of our political speak–“as American as apple pie” or getting “a piece of the pie.”  But talk of pie is particularly useful when it comes to immigration.  Simply put, reform boils down to how you cut up the current immigration pie or if you make a bigger one.

In the last fifty years, the immigration pie has expanded.  In other words, we haven’t had to cut some folks a smaller slice in order to give others a bigger one.  At the main immigration policy junctures of 1965, 1986 and 1990, the United States has refrained from skimping on slices.  Family reunification visas and worker visas have not come at the expense of the other.  However, we are on the verge of a paradigm shift where the pie may have gotten as big as it’s going to get and the family slice may get cut into.

First, a little background on family reunification visas.  Family considerations in immigration policy have been around since immigration was first regulated in the late 1800s.  But it wasn’t until 1965 with the Hart-Cellar Act that family reunification became the centerpiece of America’s immigration policy.

The Hart Cellar Act established two classes of family visas.  The first family visa category is for the unmarried minor children or the parents of U.S. citizens.  This visa category has no cap.  The second family visa category includes adult children, brothers and sisters, and the spouses or unmarried children of green card holders.  Each of these specific family preferences has a cap attached to it.

The current round of immigration talks has revolved around the other main visa type, worker visas.  There has been a great deal of discussion of visas for individuals in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields. There has been similar attention to the need for immigrant workers at the opposite end of the skill spectrum.  Beyond agricultural workers, the U.S. finds itself in need of a wide array of low-skilled employees.  For example, with the aging of the Baby Boomers the home health care industry is growing beyond the current supply of workers.

RELATED: Immigration bill hopes to create a steady flow of agricultural workers

Both parties agree on the need for these new worker visas.  Republican and Democratic Senators have already agreed to create a new visa class, the W Visa, for low-skilled workers.  Senators from both parties have also signaled that they plan to expand the cap of the H1-B Visas for people from high-tech fields.

The Democratic and Republican Parties agree on the end—more visas for workers.  However, they differ on how to get there.  Today, the majority of immigrant visas go to family members of immigrants through the family reunification preference.  Republican lawmakers instead want to see the bulk of visas go to workers.  They want to increase the W or H1-B visas by decreasing the family visas.  In turn, Democratic lawmakers want to leave the family reunification visas in place but at the same time increase the number of work-based visas.

RELATED: Senators add high tech visas to immigration bill 

In very non-technical terms, Republicans lean toward re-slicing the current pie, while Democrats want to bake a new, bigger pie.

What Republican lawmakers like Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, have proposed is doing away with the visas for non-immediate family members.  The rationale is that the slice of those visas would go toward worker visas and the gross number of visas would remain relatively similar to current levels.

In contrast, the argument for broader family visas is that viewing the immediate family as only minor children and parents is a very Anglo view of the family and not sensitive to other cultures.  Moreover, family visa advocates ask why worker visas and family visas are mutually exclusive.

Debate over the broader family visas is not a new one.  Since it was put in place, family reunification has faced challenges.  But it seems that in the current reform package family reunification visas may have met their match.

RELATED: Religious and labor leaders push for family unity with immigration reform

The most pressing issue in the current immigration reform is normalizing the status of the 11 million undocumented persons in this country.  If Republicans can agree to placing these individuals on a path to citizenship, then perhaps their request of limiting family reunification visas may prove to be the lynchpin for agreement.  Doing away with the second class of family visas may be the lesser of two evils for immigration advocates.

Democratic lawmakers have vowed to keep the current family reunification system.  Democrats may succeed in again making the immigration pie bigger.  But they may not, in the midst of so many moving parts within a comprehensive piece of legislation and such an acrimonious political context.  If this is the case, this will mark a momentous break from immigration policy over the past half a century and reshape yet again the contours of our immigrant nation.

Immigration reform on the verge of seismic shift from family to worker based system victoria new nbc politics NBC Latino News

Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.

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