Immigration Reform Could Pit Family Ties Against Economic Need

Far more green cards are currently issued for family ties versus employment.

ByABC News
April 2, 2013, 1:56 PM

April 2, 2013— -- In many ways, American immigration is a story about economics: immigrants helping grow the country's economy, newcomers themselves getting jobs they couldn't find at home.

But family is an even bigger part of our current immigration system.

See Also:Business and Labor Strike Immigration Deal

At present, far more people gain legal status through family connections than through employment. Those are husbands joining wives, brothers reuniting with sisters, and children joining parents.

That balance could change as part of a new immigration package being drafted by a bipartisan group in the Senate.

As recently as Tuesday morning, the Democratic and Republican senators working on a bill were still hashing out exactly how to balance out family ties and employment in the overall immigration system, according to a Senate aide involved in the legislative process.

As with several other salient points in the legislation, the group will need to navigate tumultuous waters to find a solution that works for different interest groups, including businesses and immigrant rights advocates.

The numbers right now lean strongly in favor of families. Looking at those who became legal permanent residents in 2012, 66 percent used family-based petitions and 14 percent used petitions based on employment.

Several Republican members of the Senate group think that ratio should change, and have come out in favor of a system that gives preference to immigrants coming to the U.S. for work.

Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) voiced strong support for limiting the number of visas available for family members.

"Green cards should be reserved for the nuclear family. Green cards are economic engines for the country," Graham told the AP. "This is not a family court we're dealing with here. We're dealing about an economic need."

The AP reported that the Senate group was considering reducing the number of visas available to family members, but exactly what that means still appears to be under negotiation.

Across from pro-business Republicans are immigrant rights groups, who favor keeping a higher percentage of family visas, and will likely push back against a bill that eliminates the pathway to the U.S. for siblings or for adult children of those here already.

At a late-March rally in Chicago, Tuyet Le, the vice president of the Asian American Institute, which works to empower Asians from all backgrounds, said that redefining who can come to the country on a family-based visa petition would tear immigrant families apart.

"That means that that person who comes for a job, they have to make a decision as to whether they'll be reunited with their siblings ever again," Le said. "These different issues in immigration reform are being used as chips, and so these are chips rather than being seen as families."