The current waiting list includes an estimated 1.9 million people from Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh. The wait for processing visas from the Philippines — which has the most family applicants other than Mexico — is more than two decades, the longest of any country.
“The point that we’ve been trying to communicate to the White House and House and Senate is, ‘Who are we to define what a nuclear family is?’ ” said Mee Moua, president of the Asian American Justice Center, which has made family reunification a priority.
Part of a deal
People familiar with the talks said that some Democrats in the group have decided they need to compromise on family visas to convince Republicans to give ground on citizenship for illegal immigrants. At the same time, Democrats are pushing for other changes aimed at expediting the green-card process for some applicants, the sources said.
Aides to Sen. Robert Mendendez (D-N.J.), a member of the bipartisan working group who pushed hard to support family reunification in the 2007 debate, declined to comment.
Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.), who like Mendendez has introduced previous legislation aimed at strengthening the family visa program, said he would push the Senate group to maintain all of the family categories.
Former GOP senator Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who led the 2007 push to reduce family visa limits, said the large number of illegal immigrants and low-skilled workers seeking to become legal residents and citizens should be offset with foreigners with higher levels of education and technical skills.
In the 2007 bill, some categories of family visas were replaced by a system in which applicants would earn points based on family connections, skills and education levels, including the ability to speak English.
“We’ve all been inspired by the Statue of Liberty,” said Kyl, now a government policy adviser at Covington & Burling. “But if you have 10 to 20 million people, many of whom are not well educated or skilled, coming in all at once, that does potentially create some problems.”
Immigration advocates have reacted to the discussions by starting a grass-roots lobbying effort aimed at blocking any reductions in family visas.
On Wednesday, more than 100 immigrants arrived in Washington after a bus tour to highlight family reunification and spent the day lobbying Congress. A House subcommittee held a public hearing Thursday morning on the hurdles of reuniting families under current law, and advocates will brief Senate staffers on the issue Friday.
“Congress does not have to sacrifice immigrant families, many of whom start their own businesses and strengthen our social fabric, at the altar of economic interests,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It should not be a zero-sum game. It would be salt in the wound if they gave them to the business side.”
Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, said that defining immediate families as simply parents and their minor children ignores the “people you need to build a support network. We’re talking about a U.S. citizen where the sister has a small business and wants to sponsor her brother who has the technical skills to help run that business. The fallacy is that folks think of immediate relatives not contributing to the economy. That’s not true.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.
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