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Religious groups, pro-reform organizations brace for fight over family-based visas

Lobbyists and activists in Washington, D.C., are holding their collective breath this week as they await legislative language on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that has largely been negotiated behind closed doors.

But hints of the bill’s proposals already have religious organizations and other pro-reform groups publicly signaling that they will fight possible reductions in visas available to foreign-born family members of U.S. citizens.

Activists fear that the bipartisan Gang of Eight proposal may seek to eliminate two categories of family-based visas – those available to the siblings and to the married adult children of U.S. citizens – in order to shift more visas to immigrants linked to employers.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a key member of the Gang of Eight, said that a primary goal of the legislation would be to “turn our chain migration, family-based immigration system into a merit- based immigration system with a family component.”

While it’s not yet apparent exactly how Graham’s statement will translate in the draft legislation, proponents of family-based visas -- like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Latino and Asian pro-reform groups -- are making the argument that eliminating those visa categories would break apart families and undermine support structures for new immigrants.

“We’re very concerned about what we’re hearing,” says Mee Moua, the president of the Asian American Justice Center, which is lobbying Congress to maintain the existing family visa categories.

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“The elimination of any of the categories, particularly the sibling or married children categories, is going to have a disproportionate impact on the Asian American community, in addition to the Latino community and the African-Caribbean community as we’re striving to allow those groups to reunite with their families," she said.

Those who believe family visas should be limited say that current family preference levels mean that there are too few slots for the immigrants most likely to boost the American economy.

“We are not bringing in skilled immigrants in sufficient numbers to meet our needs and to maximize future American prosperity,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wrote in his new book on immigration reform. “Unlike every other country, in America family members of existing immigrants account for a large majority of new lawful entrants into our country, crowding out most others, including immigrants who would contribute greatly to economic growth.”

Bush is correct that the majority of new legal permanent residents are here because of family ties. The federal government estimates that in 2011, nearly 65 percent of the one million new legal permanent residents of the United States received their status based on a family relationship.

But proponents of maintaining family-based visa categories counter that Bush’s call to balance between “economic” and “family” visas oversimplifies the debate.

“There’s the idea that we grant family visas to be nice and we grant employment visas to be strategic,” says Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the director of immigration for the National Council of La Raza. “That’s a completely false premise.”

Martinez de Castro and others argue that immigrants who come to the United States as the sibling or child of a citizen are no less likely to contribute positively to the economy than those who come for work. (Proponents point to Yahoo’s Jerry Yang and Google co-founder Sergey Brin as examples of job creators who emigrated to America because of family ties.)

“Immigrant families are not potted plants,” said Kevin Appleby, director of the office of migration at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “They work, and they are economic actors as well.”

Appleby was joined on the conference call by other religious leaders and by AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka.

“Some are trying to pit economic interests against family,” said Trumka. “They say that ‘on merit’ brothers and sisters and children and spouses are worth less than people employers  prefer. The labor movement doesn’t buy that for one second.”

Currently, immigration law places no caps on visas for the foreign-born spouses,  minor children and parents (for those over 21) of current U.S. citizens. But the number of visas available for the married adult children of U.S. citizens is capped at 23,400 per year, and those for the siblings of citizens are limited at 65,000 annually. The immediate families of legal permanent residents also face visa caps.

Because of high demand and statutory limitations on the volume of new immigrants from individual countries, family members who have petitioned for visas are also subject to years-long backlogs.

The State Department estimated last year that 4.4 million individuals whose visa petitions had been approved were still awaiting an open slot for permanent legal residence; all but 3 percent of those were family-based visa petitioners.

Wait times can stretch years and even decades. A sibling of a U.S. citizen attempting to emigrate from the Philippines, for example, would have needed to file a visa petition in 1989 to be eligible to apply for a green card today.

Activists believe the backlogs for approved legal immigrants will be addressed thoroughly in the coming legislation.

“There is a recognition that some of these people have been waiting an inhumane length of time,” said Moua. “There is an attempt to meaningfully address this category of people.”

While they are less optimistic on the family visa issue, pro-reform groups are hopeful that their efforts to lobby to reinstate any eliminated visa categories will be effective as the legislation works its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee and to the Senate floor.

“This is the first inning of a nine-inning game,” Appleby said. “We will have many bites of the apple.”