Seven Democratic senators push to maintain family visas

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, speaks with Jennifer Ng'andu, Director of Health and Civil Rights Policy for the National Council of La Raza, after Ng'andu testified in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigrant women and immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), left, speaks with Jennifer Ng'andu, director of Health and Civil Rights Policy for the National Council of La Raza, after a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigrant women and immigration reform on Capitol Hill on March 18. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Seven Democratic senators are asking a bipartisan group of colleagues to reconsider plans to eliminate some categories of family visas as the group finalizes a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.

In a letter to the eight-member group, Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Al Franken (Minn.) praised the bipartisan effort but cautioned that the senators should maintain visas reserved specifically for foreign brothers, sisters and married children of U.S. citizens.

The Washington Post reported last week that the senators are planning to eliminate those categories to help clear a back load of 4.3 million family visa applications, while also making it easier for some foreign workers to enter the country. Those family members could still apply for visas but would need other qualifications such as work skills and English proficiency to increase their chances. Senate aides said no decisions have been finalized.

"This is very troubling," the Democratic senators write in their letter. "Different types of family members can play an important role in each other’s lives, and for some Americans, a brother or sister is the only family they have."

The letter is the latest push-back against the plan. In the House, two dozen members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus wrote to the Senate group in support of the family visa program. Caucus Chair Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said family visas have long been a core part of the nation's immigration system. She and other caucus members are scheduled to speak to some Senate members involved in the bipartisan immigration talks Thursday.

Currently, about two-thirds of visas are issued for family reasons, with 14 percent for employment reasons. Republicans have said increasing work visas will balance the country's economic needs with family ties.

"Family-based immigration is important not only to individual citizens, but to the social and economic well-being of the country as a whole," the senators wrote. "The available evidence suggests that family-based immigrants add to the economy directly and through their support of other working family members.  Family-based immigrants bring vital skills and new ideas to this country, increase the likelihood of successful integration of new immigrants through family support networks, and over time show more upward mobility than any other immigrant group. In other words, family-based immigration should not be considered less important than employment-based immigration.  Both are vital to our country’s future."

The bipartisan Senate group of four Republicans and four Democrats is expected to unveil their bill next month, and it will include a path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants. The legislation is expected to serve as a template for a potential deal between Congress and the White House.

This post has been updated.

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