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Respecting the Family Unit in Immigration Reform

Today, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on "The Separation of Nuclear Families Under U.S. Immigration Law." The hearing's title invites the question: How do we define a family?
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The national conversation taking place around immigration is at its core about how we define ourselves as Americans, and about our relationships with one another. A critical issue that often escapes the limelight is that of the broken family-based immigration system which keeps loved ones apart, often for decades.

As of November 2012, around 4.3 million people were waiting to obtain visas in order to join their family members who reside in the United States. A significant number -- 1.8 million -- are seeking to unite with immediate relatives who are Asian Americans. Family members from China, India and the Philippines, for example, have been waiting between 10 and 23 years to receive visas that will enable them to join their U.S. citizen or permanent resident relatives in America.

Lawmakers need to fix the broken family-based immigration system through a framework that values the importance of family members. Today, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on "The Separation of Nuclear Families Under U.S. Immigration Law." The hearing's title invites the question: How do we define a family?

SAALT submitted testimony to the committee, emphasizing the importance of holistic immigration reform for South Asian Americans, particularly the need to reunite families in a timely and humane manner, rather than keeping them apart for years or decades on end.

Today, American families are configured in ways that recognize and respect both biological and interpersonal relationships between individuals. They can include single parents, same-sex couples, adopted children, grandparents raising grandchildren, and multiple generations of family members. In fact, the Census Bureau estimates that the number of multigenerational households increased from 3.9 million in 2000 to 5.1 million in 2010.

Despite this expansive understanding of American families, the definition of familial relationships becomes much more limited when the conversation turns to immigrants, with policymakers often ready to restrict particular avenues of family-based immigration. Historically, opposition to the family-based immigration system has been focused on denying U.S. citizens the opportunity to unite with their adult married children or siblings.

This means that the adult son or daughter of a U.S. citizen is separated from his or her parent for years and misses important family events, or the opportunity to care for an ailing parent. It means that a brother is not able to provide technical skills or support his U.S. citizen sister's small business.

Families build support networks for each other and become the backbone of our communities, neighborhoods, and economy. Defining a family unit in the narrowest of ways -- married adults raising children, for example -- does not reflect the modern configurations of American families. Are we willing to exclude brothers and sisters, and married sons and daughters in our definition of a family unit, and to conclude that their lack of presence and support in our lives has no impact?

There is already a bill introduced in Congress -- the Reuniting Families Act -- which would preserve family-based immigration in practical ways. It would recapture unused family-sponsored visas, raise current per-country immigration limits, and reclassify spouses with green cards and same sex bi-national partners as immediate relatives. This is the direction that lawmakers should be heading in, as they develop a bipartisan plan to overhaul the immigration system.

As an immigrant myself who has benefited from family and employment-based immigration, I am hopeful that the efforts to improve the immigration system will recognize the value of the love and support of our family members. Let's not set a double standard in our understanding and treatment of families by forcing immigrants to be separated by loved ones in ways that most Americans could never imagine.

Deepa Iyer is the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and the Chair of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA).

This piece was originally published in The Hill.

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