May 6, 2004
Painless visa reforms would repair immigration inequities for families
At this moment, thousands of wives, husbands, and children wait an ocean apart in an immigration backlog that promises years more of separation. The tragedy is that this separation from spouses and parents is not necessary. While we often hear Members of Congress say, “I don’t mind helping people who want to come to America legally,” today we can see if such statements are heartfelt or merely rhetoric.
Some background: In 2000, Congress created the “V” visa to allow the spouses and children of lawful permanent residents stuck in the immigration backlog to travel to and stay in the United States while the government processes their applications. It was considered a pro-family reform that attracted bipartisan support. In fact, Republicans in Congress proposed the measure as an alternative to more sweeping proposals.
The problem is that this pro-family reform expired, in effect, on December 21, 2003. And so far there’s been little effort in Congress to do anything about it. Under the Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act, only applications filed for family beneficiaries on or before December 21, 2000 were eligible for the V visa. Moreover, only spouses and children waiting three years or more could apply.
One reason this reform proved so helpful to so many people (about 42,000 a year from 2001 to 2003) is that spouses and children of green card holders face a backlog of at least 5 years. That does not take into account additional time for the State Department or Citizenship and Immigration Services to process their paperwork.
To put the situation in perspective, note that immigrant visas are currently available only for spouses and children who applied as long ago as July 1999. (The date is January 1997 for Mexicans.) This is because a relatively small number of visas are allotted annually to this category.
Many people do not realize that consular officers generally don’t issue visitor visas to family members with pending immigration applications. They view such individuals as “intending” immigrants and, therefore, candidates for staying in the country after their visa time has expired. That means the only time together for such families is when the U.S.-based spouse or parent can afford to take a few weeks off work to travel abroad. The V visa solved that problem.
Numbers cannot tell the whole story of the pain caused by husbands and wives or mothers and daughters living thousands of miles apart. But to cite one example, in the Indian-American community, an estimated 50,000 or more lawful permanent residents are separated from their spouses or children due to immigration backlogs. A more long-term solution is to expand the number of green cards available in this category but not in a divisive way, such as by taking numbers away from other immigration categories. No reform of legal immigration is likely to happen this year.
U.S. lawmakers can mitigate the human toll of certain immigration rules and processes. When I worked for Senator Spence Abraham on the immigration subcommittee we changed the law so that employer-sponsored immigrants from India, China, and elsewhere could receive green cards without regard to the “per country” limits if numbers were available under the 140,000 annual cap.
Moreover, we allowed individuals to stay past their 6 year-limit on H-1B visas – rather than be forced to leave the country – if they applied for a green card and had been waiting more than a year for the INS
or Department of Labor to process their paperwork. Many people have told me how these small reforms made an impact on their lives – and at no harm to anyone else.
During the 2000 Presidential campaign, then candidate George W. Bush stated his support for what later became the V visa. This is an issue on which both parties should agree.
It is bad public policy to allow backlogs to separate families. The good news is that with a stroke of a pen, Members of Congress can help these families be reunited. Will they? Let’s hope so.
Stuart Anderson, formerly Staff Director of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, is Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy organization.