Inside the immigration bill: A cut to family-based visas

April 17, 2013

A bipartisan Senate group has agreed on a sweeping legislative proposal that would represent the most ambitious overhaul of the U.S. immigration system in three decades. The Washington Post will be examining portions of the bill on Post Politics in a series of blog entries.

The Senate bill expands the opportunities for all kinds of newcomers to the U.S.: those who are undocumented, those seeking asylum, and those who want to come work temporarily in the U.S. But in the process, it also reduces the opportunities for other types of potential immigrants: The bill eliminates family-based visas for siblings and the adult children of U.S. citizens — a change that some of the most vocal supporters of immigration reform are criticizing.

The bill would eliminate the 65,000 family-based visas that are given out every year to the siblings of U.S. citizens, as well as those given to the married adult children who are 31 and older. The changes would be phased in 18 months after the bill is enacted.

The issue is likely to spark a major fight as the bill moves forward in the Senate. The AFL-CIO, which worked closely with legislators to develop the framework, has already come out in strong opposition to the family visa changes. " It’s not a good change in policy. The family has been the anchor, the core of the American immigration system," said Ana Avendano, AFL-CIO's director of immigration. "Siblings are a much a part of my family as my parents are."

The bill does create a hybrid "merit-based" system that would allocate up to 250,000 visas a year based on a wide variety of factors, including family relationships, education, employment, and length of stay in the U.S. But relatively speaking, the system would award very few points to those who are siblings, more strongly favoring those who have been in the U.S. for a long time without family ties. "As a sibling, it's going to be very difficult to get a green card," said Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

That said, the bill makes it easier for other relatives to immigrate on family-based visas: the spouses and children of U.S. citizens or residents with green cards to immigrate immediately rather than having to wait for a visa. It also includes other changes to eliminate the massive backlogs in both the family and employment-based visa programs.

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Ed O'Keefe | April 17, 2013