What does the new immigration bill mean for women and families?
As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month comes to an end, and summer plans kick off, we as Asian American women must take the time to reflect what’s at stake for our families in the comprehensive immigration reform bill. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted S.744 out of committee and now goes to the Senate floor. The Asian American Justice Center (AAJC) was pleased to see provisions that reduce our long backlog and allow permanent residents to petition their immediate family more quickly, also known as the “2a fix” remain in the Senate bill. The bill also sets to increase the country caps, further alleviating the backlog, and allows U.S. citizens’ parents to bring along their minor children with them.
These family immigration fixes will provide much relief to the more than four million family members waiting to reunite with their loved ones here in the U.S. Among those family members waiting are our mothers, daughters, and sisters. For Asian American family members, the backlogs are particularly troubling. In 2012, approximately 86 percent of visas issued for Asian nations were family-based. Additionally, Asian American citizens and green card holders sponsor approximately one-third of all family-based visas, and thus are disproportionately affected by backlogs, which can last up to 23 years.
But even after the committee vote, there remain many unanswered questions for what’s to come of our family immigration system moving forward. Due to the bill’s proposal to put an age cap on petitions for adult married children and to wipe out the sibling category, completely, there is a key shift in our immigration system. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), the only Asian American immigrant on the Judiciary Committee, and in the U.S. Senate, proposed an amendment, which would allow U.S. citizens under “extreme hardship” to petition family members, but this amendment ultimately failed by a vote of 11 to 7. However, Senator Hirono offered a number of amendments that improves the bill, which passed easily including an amendment to reunite Filipino World War II veterans with their families swiftly and an amendment that gives DREAMers access to federal student aid. These amendments demonstrate Sen. Hirono’s steadfast commitment to the immigrant community and their families.
As the bill now heads to the full Senate floor, the debate around families only continues. Now all Senators will have their chance to improve the bill. With the proposed merit-based system, which awards points to individuals based on education, language ability, family ties to the U.S., and other related criteria, AAJC is still fighting to ensure Asian American families aren’t left behind. As it is currently written, an adult sibling petitioned by a U.S. citizen would receive the same number of points as someone with a masters’ degree. We, as do many of our friends in the Latino, civil rights and faith communities, have serious concerns about this system imposing a major disadvantage to women who may not possess the education, work experience, or other economically-valued skillsets to accumulate enough points to be eligible for a visa within a decent timeframe. Earlier this year, Sen. Hirono conducted a Senate hearing on the impact immigration reform will have on women. For many women, the family-based immigration system is their only avenue for legal immigration. By limiting family-based system, there are many concerns for the future immigrant women. With this in mind, Sen. Hirono offered an amendment that commissions the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to conduct a study on the new merit-based system’s impact, which easily passed on a voice vote. We know that immigrant women are underrepresented in the high-skill workforce. Sen. Hirono’s amendment will keep the GAO accountable to women, families, and the American people.
Each of the senators, at one time or another, throughout the mark-up process, acknowledged that this bill was a compromise bill. And that was evermore evident when Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was forced to withdraw his amendments that would have allowed same-sex, bi-national, permanent partners reunite here in the U.S. “I don’t want to be the senator who asks Americans to choose between the love of their life and the love of their country,” Leahy said during the committee debate. However, that is what the committee did by rejecting Sen. Leahy and Sen. Hirono’s family reunification amendments. If the Senate bill were to pass tomorrow, we would be forcing Americans to make heart-breaking decisions between their families and their home countries. Does that sound like a commonsense solution? Not at all.
Passing a bill with meaningful provisions and fixes on family immigration will be a complicated fight. We will need to defend the provisions that help families, while fighting against amendments and rhetoric that attack the family unit. As the Senate floor awaits the bill, the House bill is set to be introduced any day now. There are many rumors that the House bill will be significantly more conservative than the Senate bill. I hope that you all, as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters, will join me in this fight that is crucial for Asian American women and families. If you are an immigrant, and the daughter, mother, or sister of an amazing and talented woman, make your voice heard, and tell your story today. Join us in the fight to reunite our Asian American and immigrant families!