As legal permanent residents prepare to settle into their lives in the United States, many of them face a difficult dilemma—long periods of separation from their families, an excruciating wait that can amount to decades for some. Even if a family member has every one of their documents in order, the sheer numerical lack of visas means that they will languish in a backlogged line of hundreds of thousands of cases just like theirs. Reinstating the V visa—which would immediately reunite families while they wait for the lengthy backlogs to subside and provide important benefits to our economy—would be a bipartisan solution to this troubling phenomenon.
Each year, the United States allocates 226,000 visas to reunite families of noncitizens. But according to the latest available report from the State Department, for fiscal year 2012 there will still be 839,755 spouses and children of legal permanent residents on the waiting list. This means that our system requires hundreds of thousands of families to remain separated. For a nation that prides itself on its inclusiveness, diversity, and history defined by immigrants, this is not only a predicament for immigrants but also a breach of our most sacred values.
Congress passed the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act in December 2000. The act created the V visa, which allowed immediate relatives of permanent residents who were in the backlog for three years or more to enter the United States and be reunited with their families while they waited for their permanent visas.
Unfortunately, Congress included a sunset provision to the legislation, which stated that a petition for a family visa must have been filed on or before December 21, 2000, to be eligible for the V visa. The V visa, therefore, is currently unavailable to anyone who was put on the waiting list after that date.
What’s more, the phasing out of the V visa has meant that the backlog problem persists despite efforts by Congress to fix this broken system. The House of Representatives last week passed the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act (H.R. 3012) on a 389-15 vote but fell far short of easing the backlog. H.R. 3012 eliminates the per-country quotas on employment visas and raises the per-country quotas for family-based visas from 7 percent to 15 percent of the total number of visas given out each year.
But because the new law does not increase the overall quantity of visas, the reduced wait times for countries with large numbers of applicants such as China and India, while welcome, will come at the price of longer wait times for applicants from other countries.
Further, even though 75 percent of spouses and children of permanent residents are already exempt from per-country quotas, some still face separation from loved ones for up to 19 years. These are people who would otherwise be eligible to enter the United States who have been waiting patiently at the back of the line for their paperwork to go through. To expedite the ineffectual and wrenching process would only be fair.
Besides posing a moral dilemma, the problem of family backlogs has direct economic implications for us all. Meredith Higashi and Ronald Lee of the Asian American Justice Center argue that the backlog in family visas impedes families from contributing to our economy’s recovery. Reunifying these families leads to self-employed, entrepreneurial small businesses run by families that promote economic growth and job growth across the country.
Permanent residents with spouses and children living abroad also have little or no incentive to invest in the United States and instead remit billions back to their home countries. Reuniting these families encourages them to invest domestically in the United States. Families also serve as a financial and emotional support system, allowing an easy transition for the new arrivals and ensuring that they do not become a drain on public resources.
Allowing timelier reunification also helps maintain the nation’s competitive edge by attracting the best and the brightest. Several studies indicate that skilled immigrants on H-1B visas often forego permanent residency in the United States due to the difficulty of bringing over family. It is counterproductive to drive away talented individuals because of a backlogged system.
The V visa was a sensible compromise legislation that had strong bipartisan support. Even two staunch proponents of strict immigration enforcement measures, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-TX), who were chairmen of their respective judiciary committees, supported this proposal. In the ensuing years, advancing bicameral and agreeable immigration proposals in Congress has been a difficult if not impossible task.
The bipartisan and overwhelming support with which the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act passed last week may signal an opportunity to move the dialogue away from state vigilante enforcement and federal inaction and toward bipartisan agreement and concrete solutions. As Congress revisits the per-country limitations with H.R. 3012, now is an opportune time to also reauthorize this important family reunification tool without a sunset provision.
Republicans and Democrats agree that families should not be broken up and separated for the political agenda of either party, and a majority of the public agrees. While acknowledging that reinstating the V visa is a temporary solution to a broken immigration system, Congress should recognize the benefits of family reunification, as well as the rare opportunity provided by the current climate, and amend the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act.
Mayu Takeda was an Intern this fall with the Immigration Team at the Center for American Progress.