As immigration reform seems increasingly likely, I wanted to take some time to look at some of the biggest questions facing lawmakers. On Monday, we examined the question of whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to apply for legal status only, without the possibility of eventual citizenship, or whether a long-term path to citizenship should be part of the proposal. I argued that barring the undocumented from eventually—through a process that would take as long as thirteen years—becoming citizens would be counter to the interests of our country, where integration of immigrants is the best policy for the common good. You can read Monday’s blog here.
Today and Friday, I want to address two other potential pitfalls as immigration reform legislation moves forward. Though one is being promoted primarily by folks on the political right and the other by those mostly on the left, both are based in the same faulty logic: that, as the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh says in his thoughtful critique of the idea, immigration is “a budget that needs to be balanced.” Almost everyone agrees that the U.S. economy would benefit if an immigration reform bill were to provide more visas for “highly-skilled” workers, particularly those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics sectors whose industries are growing, but whose growth (at least within the U.S.) is being hindered, say corporate executives, by short-sighted immigration policies that limit their ability to import the skilled workers they need. But as they provide more highly-skilled employer-sponsored visas, leaked reports suggest that some Republicans want to eliminate certain other visas altogether, particularly certain family reunification visas. Some labor unions—which tend to have influence on Democratic legislators, in particular—are uncomfortable with significant numbers of new visas for those workers classified as “low-skill.” In a spirit of bipartisanship, I’ll critique the first idea today and the second on Friday.
Both these concerns are based on the idea that our economy’s ability to absorb immigrants is zero-sum: that there is a set number of jobs available for both immigrants and U.S. citizens, so that if we let an immigrant in through one door, we ought to let one fewer in through another in order to keep the overall number stable. But almost all economists find this logic flawed, because they know that most immigrants—including those who come in through family-sponsored visas, not just those admitted on employer-sponsored visas—are workers, and they tend to do jobs that complement the work of U.S. citizens. They are also consumers, and their purchasing power within the U.S. helps to add to the economy as a whole, creating a larger pie to divide. When an immigrant arrives (sometimes after decades of waiting) through a petition from her sibling, she will almost certainly get a job, contributing to the U.S. economy as a worker, as a consumer, and as a taxpayer.
The specific proposal that is rumored to be part of the Senate’s immigration reform, apparently at the urging of some in the GOP, would be to eliminate the ability of a U.S. citizen to file a petition for his or her sibling or parent. Under existing law, citizens can file these petitions: parents are generally allowed to migrate as “immediate relatives” within about a year, whereas sibling petitions take a minimum of ten years and up to almost twenty-five in some cases. In all cases, the U.S. citizen petitioner must take on financial liability for their relative, ensuring that the immigrant will not use public benefits or otherwise become a “public charge.”
The rationale behind eliminating these family reunification visas, presumably, is that adult siblings and parents of adult children are not part of the “nuclear family.” One of the strengths that immigrant communities contribute to our country, though, is that many cultures—particularly Latino, Asian, and African cultures—have a broader view of family than most Westerners. It’s a view of family that is much closer to the families we read about in the Bible. Think of the families of the patriarchs like Abraham or Jacob, which included multiple generations. Sponsoring an elderly, often widowed mother to come to live with her adult son and his family in the U.S. is often the best way that son can provide for and support her. Even if she is retired and does not work in the U.S., she will often provide childcare for her grandchildren, allowing the children’s parents to work. Having spent time in other parts of the world, I’ve felt convicted that our society fails to honor and provide for widows and other elderly people the way that Scripture repeatedly call us to, and allowing U.S. citizens to continue to petition for their parents makes caring for adult parents possible.
Many of the concerns about family-based immigration are based on myths. For example, some have also expressed concerns with the idea of “chain migration,” the idea that one immigrant will sponsor all of her relatives, each of whom will sponsor many more relatives, increasing the number of immigrants arriving in the U.S. exponentially. But our laws simply do not work that way. The checks within our current system keep that from happening on any significant scale. It is not possible to petition for cousins, grandchildren, uncles and aunts, or any other extended family members, but only for spouses (of the opposite gender, at least as long as the federal Defense of Marriage Act is in effect), children, parents (of children who are at least twenty-one years old), and siblings.
Others think that the ability to petition for family members serves as the incentive for people to migrate unlawfully, taking advantage of the reality that those born in the U.S. to undocumented parents are U.S. citizens. However, those who have come to the U.S. unlawfully and have children born in the country, who are U.S. citizens under the 14th amendment, cannot benefit from their child’s citizenship in most cases. While the U.S. citizen child could technically file a petition for his undocumented parent when he turns twenty-one years old, the only option for that parent to get legal status would be to leave the U.S. to process the visa—and at that point the parent would trigger a ten year bar to legal status in the U.S., with no possibility of a waiver if the parent’s only U.S. citizen relative is their son or daughter. Since most parents would rather stay unlawfully than wait outside the U.S. for a decade—away from their U.S. citizen children— the idea that people would enter unlawfully so that they could have citizen children who could one day acquire legal status for them simply does not work. People come unlawfully to work, and then in the course of their lives they (hopefully) get married and have children.
Family-sponsored immigrants help the economy overall, and there’s no reason to pit family-sponsored immigrants against employer-sponsored immigrants: we can do both. But just as important, from a Christian perspective, is that we believe families form the basic building block of society. God instituted the family at Creation, saying “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 1:28). Intact families create stable, nurturing communities, and we should advocate for policies that continue to value family unity—and reduce unreasonable backlogs that currently can last more than two decades—as Congress considers immigration reform legislation.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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