WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Congress appears close to taking up immigration reform in a couple of weeks, some activists and lawmakers including Sen. Mazie Hirono are growing concerned the latest proposal will only exacerbate the problems that kept families like Emilio Arbues’ apart for 20 years.

Indeed, there are indications that senators may sacrifice the idea of reuniting families as a tradeoff for allowing more highly trained workers to enter the United States.

At issue are immigration policies, which limit the number of relatives of U.S. citizens allowed to move to the country each year and left some like Arbues waiting for decades for his brother-in-law from the Philippines to join him and his wife.

As it is, siblings of Filipino U.S. citizens, in fact, wait on average 24 years for visas, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. Adult married children of Filipino U.S. citizens wait more than 20 years, the institute said in a recent report.

The issue has been a big one in Hawaii, said Honolulu immigration lawyer Maile Hirota because of the state’s large Asian population, which faces the longest waits. “So much of the immigration to Hawaii is based on family ties,” she said, while other issues tied to immigration reform — like bringing more highly-skilled workers — aren’t as relevant as in other parts of the country.

Hopes, though, for families to be reunited with children or siblings overseas took a hit recently. As first reported by The Washington Post, Democrats in a bipartisan group of senators, known as the “Gang of Eight,” came up with an immigration reform plan that considered tightening eligibility for some family members to immigrate in order to get Republicans to go along with other aspects of reform. The Post reported the bipartisan group, which is expected to unveil its plan in April, is considering eliminating the ability of siblings and married children of U.S. citizens to immigrate here.

Other aspects of the plan, according to U.S. News & World Report, would create a 13-year path to citizenship for illegal immigrants after the U.S.-Mexico border is declared secured. It also would create a guest worker program and more work visas — elements pushed by labor unions and business.

If the Senate goes ahead with such a plan, it would represent a difficult dilemma for Hirono, who has pushed strongly to make family reunification a key part of reform. She presided over a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week to push the issue. A spokesman for Hirono on Monday said she would oppose eliminating categories for family members to be able to immigrate, but stopped short of saying she’d oppose the bill.

The issue is also getting national attention, with The New York Times opining against new restrictions on relatives on Monday: “It might be hard to imagine that America’s long tradition of allowing immigrants to sponsor spouses, children and siblings for visas would be threatened. But anti-immigration groups and lawmakers have long attacked the practice … Even as some of the staunchest resistance to reform is crumbling — legalizing 11 million immigrants was unthinkable for leading Republicans a few months ago, and now even rock-ribbed Tea Partiers like Representative Rand Paul favor it — right-wing resistance to family migration persists.”

A Long Wait

Emilio Arbues described the emotional impact of an excruciating wait for he and his wife to be reunited with her brother.

Arbues, a former Naval officer, said in a recent phone conversation that he and his wife were able to immigrate to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1965, settling in Hawaii for the same reasons as generations before have done.

“In part it was to make a new life for the sake of my two children — especially my youngest who was born with cerebral palsy. So I says, well, it’s very hard to get support (in the Philippines).”

After a few years in the U.S., he and his wife wanted her younger brother to come, too.

“It was only my wife and two kids. We started feeling that when we got old, we don’t have relatives in Hawaii,” Arbues said. “The time will come when it will be us two old folks getting old with no one even to call 911 for us.”

So, he said, he and his wife petitioned for her younger brother, Rodante Serrano, to immigrate in 1983. His turn didn’t come until 2002.

The wait was frustrating. “My wife has mixed feelings. Sometimes you get angry. Why we spend so much money to go through the regular process when you see what’s happening. How come the legal process takes so much longer than the illegal one?”

He remembers telling Serrano, “My goodness, ‘It’s better to go to Mexico and jump over the fence. You would have been here in 1993.’”

Arbues is nearing 88 years old. His wife has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Serrano helps take care of the son with cerebral palsy. They get by as a family, living in Waipahu.

But even though the wait was long, the family would not have been able to reunite at all if the current immigration reform proposals were in place.

What’s been causing the backlog are complex immigration laws that limit how many people can immigrate in total and from each country. Residents of countries with high numbers of citizenship applications — most notably Mexico, the Philippines, China and India — face the longest wait times, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

The law sets annual limits for categories of family members, which also depend on the countries and the number of applications. According to the Center for Migration, the wait for Filipino spouses and children of U.S. citizens is about two years, but it is nearly 15 years for adult unmarried children, more than 20 years for married children and more than 25 years for the siblings of U.S. citizens.

The disparity has its own consequences, Hirota, the immigration lawyer, said. Adults in the Philippines who are hoping to join their parents in the United States often hold off on getting married to shorten their waits.

Arbues said his brother-in-law’s children had lost hope their father would ever be able to go to the U.S. and decided to marry. Now they face longer wait times, and under the coming Senate proposal, may not be able to emigrate at all.

In a related issue, Filipino veterans are hoping immigration reform will exempt their relatives from the annual limits, allowing them to immigrate immediately. It’s unknown what senators are considering, but the veterans took heart in winning the public support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., two weeks ago.

Christine Ayson, a registered nurse in Honolulu, is another who has been waiting — almost 30 years now.
Ayson said she came to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1984 to work as a nurse. She missed her family from the start. “I just tried to keep myself busy, working 24/7, holidays, in order to not feel the loneliness.”

She filed for one brother in 1991. Her parents, who were able to immigrate, filed a petition for two other brothers in 2000. “Because they’re my family,” she said when asked why she wants her brothers here.

They’re still waiting.

“It’s difficult, the waiting,” she said. “I’m really pro-family. Although I have my own family now, it’s different with your original family who you were children with.”

Asked about the idea of eliminating the ability to petition for siblings to immigrate, she said it would be counterproductive. “It would just encourage people to come illegally,” she said.

A Trade-Off

The Gang of Eight senators have thus far declined to comment on their deliberations. A spokesman for New York Democrat Charles Schumer, a member of the group working on the reform proposal, did not return an email Monday.

However, eliminating siblings and married children as categories for immigration was recommended by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, a body created by Congress. Susan Martin, former executive director of the commission, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that it was a tradeoff.

Saying it was a difficult decision, she said the commission decided there was a special bond between “spouses and parents and minor children.” The commission recommended that limits be raised to allow waiting spouses and children to have their applications processed in less than a year. But in return, the commission recommended eliminating the other categories. She argued the backlog for siblings and married adult children was so long it would often mean allowing people to enter the country after their working years were over. She did recommend that pending applications for siblings and married children be honored.

Whether the Senate proposal will streamline immigration for spouses and unmarried sons and daughters or if it will only restrict immigration in the other categories isn’t clear. It’s also unknown if siblings and married sons and daughters with pending applications would be grandfathered in.

Republican senators, though, argued that restricting immigration for some relatives would also be seen as a tradeoff for allowing more work visas.

Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions argued at the Judiciary Committee hearing, “Because a foreign national leaves their home country and comes to the United States, it doesn’t mean they have a right to demand their brother has a right to come.”

He said also, “It’s up to the U.S. to determine who should be allowed to enter. The American people’s instincts are good and decent, not anti-immigrant. No one is proposing we are going to restrict fundamentally the number of people who are going to going to come into the country. We need to decide how and what standards to use for that …

“It strikes me that there’s a limited number of people the United States can accept. We can’t accept everybody who would like to come. When you admit (married adult children and siblings) in preference to people with skills your country needs, you’re making a policy decision, are you not?”

Carlos Juarez, chairman of Hawaii Pacific University’s Department of Social Sciences, said in an interview the issue is especially important in Hawaii “where the family is such an important part of our society.”

He said, however, “There is likely to be greater consensus towards a need for fixing the problem with worker visas, an issue where we have seen intense lobbying by both labor groups as well as companies, two constituencies that often disagree. But it’s not clear if there is equally widespread support for family-based immigration policies, an issue more emotional and personal than strictly economic.”

Juarez was formerly on the staff of then-U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston. He was also a research scholar at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at University of California San Diego.

Hirota, the immigration lawyer, said the number of relatives allowed to immigrate shouldn’t be pitted against giving undocumented residents an ability to become citizens.

“The undocumented population is already here. It’s not about opening doors, it’s about having them come out of the shadows,” she said.

The Times editorial also argued against pitting relatives against allowing more workers to immigrate. “Immigration is more than a business relationship America has with selected foreigners. It’s a process that renews this country; it means going all-in on America, through binding ties of love and blood. Recruited workers enrich the country. Reunited families do, too.”

Hirono and Sen. Brian Schatz were among seven senators who wrote the Gang of Eight on March 20, saying “family-based immigration should not be considered less important than employment-based immigration. Both are vital to our country’s future. In fact, weakening the family immigration system will make it harder for employers to attract talented workers from abroad. Those foreign-born scientists and engineers have families, too.”

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., one of those who signed the letter, said at the judiciary hearing that he had heard from a constituent in Minnesota. Franken said the man’s wife and son had applied for his green card in November 2010 and only received it in February. During the wait, his child turned 21, which “kicked him into a separate category with a 19-year backlog. The immigration system is broken if you don’t get to see your wife for three years and your son for 20.”

Mee Moua, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Asian American Justice Center, also opposed eliminating some categories of relatives from immigration, saying at the hearing, “I know as immigrants, you want your families to be around you… Choosing which member of the family we’re going to throw away is a dramatic departure from our values.”

And Hirono said at the hearing, “This is all about doing the kind of immigration reforms that supports the values we have as a country. And one of the values we have is that family is important.”

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