Commentary

Family values … but not for immigrants?

Lutheran immigration agency opposes splitting up families

The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State. — Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 16(3).

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The promotion of family unity has long been a fundamental principle of U.S. immigration policy. Two-thirds of the legal immigrants admitted to the United States each year qualify because they are close relatives of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. Yet in a startling and unexpected trial balloon floated in March, the Bush administation proposed a major reduction in family-based immigration.

The trial balloon took the form of a March 28, 2007, presentation by administration officials to Republican senators. The slideshow presentation states that “the current system is out of balance,” in part because “it favors those lucky enough to have a relative here over those with valuable talents and education.” It proposes to place caps and extend the waiting periods for admission of parents and to eliminate altogether the admission of siblings and adult children. This would “free up” some 190,000 visas that would then be reallocated to “merit-based” employment immigrants. As for temporary workers with stays up to two years, they would not be allowed to bring their spouses or children to the United States at all, but would be allowed to leave the country for visits.

As one who leads a Lutheran, Christian, faith-based agency, I must say that I find this trial balloon to be extraordinarily troubling. It is based on a number of false premises about human beings, including the idea that we can consider individuals merely as workers rather than as whole human beings who live in families; the notion that family unity is somehow not a good in itself, both for the family and for society; the suggestion that the “lucky” people who uproot and come to the United States have not had to make hard choices and leave much behind; and the assumption that those who are admitted to unite with family do not themselves have “valuable talents and education” to contribute to our society. The trial balloon is offensive to the family values that the administration trumpets too loudly elsewhere.

There is no question that the current immigration system is badly broken in many ways, including both the backing for family visas and the woefully low number of employment visas. As of July 2006 the waiting time for admission of married adult children of U.S. citizens was six to 15 years, depending on the country of origin. Think of a daughter waiting that long to come care for her aging parents. The waiting time for siblings of U.S. citizens was 11 to 22 years. Picture a disabled brother in the home country with no other family to care for him for over a decade. This backlog should be remedied by expanding the number of visas, not by eliminating them altogether. I have absolutely no objection to expanding the number of employment visas, but not at the expense of family unity.

Fortunately, there are other proposals for comprehensive immigration reform that are respectful of family unity and family values. The bipartisan STRIVE Act introduced March 22 in the House of Represen-tatives would increase the availability of family visas as well as increase the number of employment-based visas. It contains all the essential components necessary for a workable, humane immigration reform plan.

At Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) we have this quaint idea that families are good and that families should be together. We will continue to advocate vigorously for U.S. immigration and refugee policies that promote family unity.

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Deffenbaugh is president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. He has worked with Lutheran organizations concerned with international affairs since 1981. Deffenbaugh was the first chair of the Refugee Council USA and has served as a public member of U.S. delegations to annual U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee meetings. He has written extensively on the legal, moral and political aspects of resettlement and is the recipient of numerous awards for distinguished achievement.