WASHINGTON, D.C. — The bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators working on immigration reform unrolled the details of a sweeping plan Wednesday that would provide a long-awaited path to citizenship for millions of undocumented aliens.
But for Hawaii, where reunification with family members from overseas is the major immigration issue, the proposal offered a mixed bag.
According to a summary of the 844-page bill made available by New Jersey Democrat, Rep. Robert Mendez, a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight, the plan would speed the ability of families now waiting decades to bring family members to join them in the United States.
It would immediately allow the spouses and unmarried children of people with U.S. green cards to have their visas processed, accelerating waits that now average about two years.
The applications of the spouses and unmarried children of U.S. citizens are already processed immediately.
A major issue for Hawaii’s large Asian population, though, has been the sometimes decades-long wait by both U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to bring in siblings and married children and their families.
The Senate proposal would in the short term offer the prospect of those family members to immigrate to the United States much more quickly, but make it harder in the future for siblings and married children to join family members in the U.S.
As a result, a coalition of Asian-American groups on Wednesday expressed concerns about changes the bill would make in those kinds of family visas.
The bill also did not mention aging Filipino World War II veterans who had hoped to see a provision that would make it easier for them to have family members from the Philippines join them.
Under the Senate proposal, family members in the U.S. have 18 months to petition for their siblings and married children to immigrate to the United States.
According to a Menendez aide, their visas would be processed in about eight years, after all the other types of family members have gotten their visas. That would be a significant improvement from the current situation, in which complex immigration laws 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.
According to the institute, the wait is nearly 15 years for adult unmarried children of U.S. citizens, more than 20 years for the adult married children of U.S. citizens and more than 25 years for the siblings of U.S. citizens.
In that sense, Menendez said in a statement, the proposal is a “huge win for our communities. Right now, the wait times in some family categories are up to 23 years – not a reasonable time to wait in line. No one wants to be separated from their spouse and child for extended periods of time.”
But what concerns some immigration advocates is that after the 18 months, the category for siblings would be eliminated and the category for married sons and daughters would be capped at 31 years old, raising fears those types of relatives will have a harder time joining their families in the future.
The siblings and married children, however, would still be able to immigrate under a new merit system in which future prospective immigrants would have their visas processed according to a point system. The system includes such factors as education, employment, and family in the U.S.
Whether to support the proposal could be a difficult issue for Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, who has been pushing the idea of making it easier for families to reunify through immigration reform. She expressed concern Wednesday at some of the proposed changes but reserved judgment.
“I look forward to reviewing the details of the bill, particularly the provisions that are intended to mitigate the harm to families caused by eliminating the sibling category of visas,” she said in a statement. She was also concerned about the ability of people awaiting citizenship to access social services.
Honolulu immigration attorney Maile Hirota said after reading a summary of the legislation that the changes for siblings and adult married changes “will be a disappointment for a lot of people.”
But she said supported the measure on the whole. “It’s going to change the whole landscape around immigration.”
Allowing the spouses and unmarried children of those with green cards to immigrate more easily “is a major, major step forward,” she said. “It’s just so cruel for a spouse of a permanent resident to have to wait years.”
A coalition of Asian-American groups who held a rally last week at the U.S. Capitol at which Hirono spoke, praised the long sought pathway to citizenship for many immigrants but expressed concern about the changes in family visas.
Mee Moua, president and executive director of Asian American Justice Center, called the proposal, “a substantial step in the right direction toward fixing our broken immigration system and a solid starting point for addressing the current backlogs.”
“Nevertheless, we are deeply concerned about the elimination of visa categories pertaining to siblings and married adult children over the age of 30,” she said.
Tuyet Le, executive director of the Asian American Institute, said: “We are pleased to see real political will around immigration reform, but continue to be concerned about the impact of proposed legislation on family reunification. Families play a critical role in our day-to-day lives, and we will continue to advocate for reform legislation that keeps families together.”
The tightening of some forms of family immigration had been expected. According to a published report, Democrats in the bipartisan group believed they needed to accept limiting family immigration in return for allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens and to allow more workers to come to the United States.
On March 20, Hirono and six other senators wrote the bipartisan group, calling the idea of tightening immigration for siblings and marrried sons and daughters “very troubling.”
“Different types of family members can play an important role in each other’s lives,” the letter said, “and for some Americans a brother or sister is the only family they have.”
However, Menendez noted that the bill is a compromise that brings together key Republican and Democratic senators. If passed by the Senate, the measure faces an uncertain future in the Republican House. The Hill, though, reported that a bipartisan House group applauded the Senate attempt, and said they will release their proposal soon.
President Barack Obama also brought up the bipartisan nature of the bill in endorsing the proposal on Tuesday.
“This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me,” Obama said in a statement. “But it is largely consistent with the principles that I have repeatedly laid out for comprehensive reform. This bill would continue to strengthen security at our borders and hold employers more accountable if they knowingly hire undocumented workers. It would provide a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million individuals who are already in this country illegally. And it would modernize our legal immigration system so that we’re able to reunite families and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers who will help create good paying jobs and grow our economy.”
Under the process that would be set up, immigrants in the country illegally who are seeking citizenship would have register for legal status, pass a background check, learn English, pay a fine and pay any necessary taxes as they work their way toward citizenship over time. The process is expected to take about 13 years.
During that time, those registered would be able to work legally in the U.S., and travel outside the country for short periods of time.
Those who were brought to the U.S. as children — the so-called Dreamers — would have a shorter wait.