Asian-Americans united on immigration overhaul

Updated: 2013-05-23 11:09

By Joseph Boris (China Daily)

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Asian-Americans united on immigration overhaul

In passing a broad, much-amended bill on immigration, the US Senate Judiciary Committee has cleared the way for a full debate in which Asian-Americans will be a vocal proponent.

The community, whose diverse heritage reflects that of the world's biggest continent and numerous Pacific islands, rarely speaks with a single voice on public policy. But reforming what many say is a broken US immigration system has energized the country's fastest-growing racial group like no other issue.

Six weeks ago, Asian-Americans were well represented at a rally of thousands who gathered in front of the Capitol to urge Congress to pass immigration reform. One of the speakers was US Representative Judy Chu, Democrat of California, chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress.

Chu, at the April 10 rally and elsewhere, has stressed that immigration legislation must include provisions aimed at "keeping families together".

"Any effort to address immigration reform must prioritize the unity and sanctity of families," reads a statement on the website of Chu's caucus, known as CAPAC. "We need to reduce visa backlogs, reunite divided families, and recognize same-sex, bi-national partnerships as family ties and permanent relatives."

Those priorities were dealt a setback in Tuesday night's bipartisan, 13-5 vote by the Judiciary Committee.

Members rejected an amendment to the bill offered by the committee's chairman, Democratic Sen Patrick Leahy of Vermont, that would have allowed US citizens in same-sex relationships to sponsor foreign partners for permanent legal status. The committee also said no to an amendment proposed by freshman Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono, a CAPAC member and the only Asian-American on the panel, to rescind a new ban on citizens and legal permanent residents sponsoring immigration by their brothers or sisters.

Current law allows sponsorship of spouses, children and siblings, with certain limits. The bill now headed to the full Senate would bar sponsorship of siblings and of married sons and daughters who are 31 or older, but it would also eliminate numeric limits in the other categories.

"This immigration reform bill does much to improve family immigration, but I fear that the bill contains some fundamental changes to our immigration system that move us away from the principle of family unification," Hirono said in a statement after she and the committee's nine other Democrats joined three of the eight Republicans in voting "yes".

"I will continue working to strengthen the provisions in the bill that impact families. Nearly everyone agrees that our immigration system is badly broken and in dire need of fixing, and this bill is a step in the right direction," she said.

Advocates in the Asian-American community expressed displeasure over the proposal's defeat, pointing out that for many US citizens and legal permanent residents, a sibling or adult child abroad may be the only family they have.

"We are extremely disappointed that the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to accept Sen Hirono's amendment, which would have provided limited relief for families experiencing extreme hardships," said Mee Moua, president and executive director of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice. "We look forward to working with the Senate on a solution that addresses all families."

The committee-endorsed bill, which the full Senate is expected to begin considering in the second week of June, also contains some changes favored by the Asian-American community. Among these is a raising of the cap under the United States' H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers, to 110,000 a year from the current 65,000. An additional 25,000 visas would be set aside for people with advanced US degrees in science, technology, engineering or math. Depending on demand and calculations of US unemployment, the H-1B cap could go as high as 180,000 a year.

A new visa, named "W", would allow up to 200,000 low-skill workers a year into the US for jobs in construction, long-term health care, hospitality and other industries. A new visa program for farm workers would replace the existing system. People who have worked in agriculture for at least two years but are in the country illegally, could apply for legal permanent residency in five years.

After heavy lobbying by the technology industry, two committee members - Republican Sen Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Sen Charles Schumer of New York - crafted a compromise to make it easier for US tech companies to hire skilled foreigners while purportedly tightening oversight of the H-1B program.

While reducing the number of employers subjected to certain H-1B rules, the current bill requires that a position be posted online and offered to an "equally or better qualified" US citizen before being offered to a foreign worker. As part of border-security improvements, the proposed legislation would also require all employers to use a federal government database to check new hires' legal status.

Labor unions said they opposed the H-1B changes, and several pro-labor senators have opposed the kind of application increases sought by the industry.

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(China Daily 05/23/2013 page2)