Monday, May 16, 2011
President Barack Obama this week reiterated his commitment to reforming our country’s immigration system through compassionate, comprehensive legislation, suggesting that America’s immigrants – whether they have arrived by the Mayflower, slave ship, Ellis Island or the Rio Grande – are one people.
We couldn’t agree more. For many American families who remain separated from siblings and parents overseas, however, that sentiment seems far out of reach.
The Reuniting Families Act, introduced last week by Rep. Mike Honda, fixes this problem by allowing all Americans to be reunited with their families — including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender permanent partners.
This act is crucial to dispel false assumptions that continue to fetter immigration reform, particularly when the country’s economy is still recovering.
The irony behind anti-immigration sentiment, fears that Americans will lose jobs if more immigrant workers enter the U.S., is that it’s more prudent fiscally to legalize, employ and reunite our immigrants than to keep families apart.
We know that lengthy waits tie up precious government resources and discourage potential applicants from using legal channels to join families here. Our family-based immigration system has not been updated in 20 years. Close to six million people are stuck waiting indefinitely, which is both unproductive and inexcusable.
Five-year separations are common, but so are 20-year separations from siblings and elderly parents. Waits are so long that families finally receiving visas often learn their children have to reapply as adults — and go to the back of the line.
People with their families are happier, healthier and more able to succeed than those living apart for years on end. By pooling resources, families can do together what they can’t do alone – start businesses, create jobs and contribute more to the general welfare. The healthier the community, the more expendable income is available — and the lower the burden on social services.
We know that immigrants who become U.S. citizens consistently pursue higher-paying jobs and higher education, spend more and provide more tax revenue. The legalization process brings other economic benefits, including the retention of remittances. Many workers now send substantial portions of their salary to family members abroad. But reform could reunite families — and keep monies in the U.S.
In my home district of San Jose, one family is making heart-wrenching decisions to remain together. Judy Rickard recently took early retirement from her job in the California State University system to live abroad six months each year to be with her wife, Karin, who is British.
Under current US law, Rickard’s marriage is not recognized. Why? Because she and Karin are a lesbian couple. Karin can only visit her in the U.S. on a tourist visa, which allows entry for only a portion of each year. Now, Rickard faces the prospect of having to leave her home in California and go into exile abroad – all to keep her family together.
This legislation expands the definition of families to include couples like Judy and Karin. In doing so, it ensures our country has the ability to attract new workers to fuel the U.S. economy, and gives employers, like Rickard’s, a valuable tool to keep talented Americans on the job — rather than forcing them to leave employers to keep their families together.
Stories like Rickard’s are increasingly the rule, not the exception, when it comes to family unification. Federal laws are literally tearing families apart and separating U.S. citizens from loved ones.
We are a nation of immigrants, and our country deserves an immigration system that honors that legacy and supports key family values — like keeping families intact. This act represents a giant step forward in that commitment. It provides a blueprint that respects families, strengthens our economy and fixes a badly broken system.
Every day Congress delays, more families face separation.
Rep Michael Honda (D-Calif.) is the chair emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Judy Rickard is the author of “Torn Apart,” and has worked with the Immigration Equality Action Fund on immigration reform.