Non-Latino groups say immigration bill undercuts their communities

April 17, 2013

(Yousef/WBEZ)
Immigration advocates for Africans and Asians rallied in the weeks prior to the immigration bill’s unveiling to keep popular family reunification and diversity visa programs. The programs were axed to reach a bipartisan compromise.

Wednesday’s unveiling of a comprehensive immigration reform bill confirmed many fears of immigrant groups that largely seek permanent status in the U.S. through existing immigrant visa programs.

The 844-page Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 was crafted by the so-called “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of senators. While many Asian and African community leaders in Chicago said they had yet to read the document thoroughly, they were aware of key changes in the document because of a conversation they had with Sen Dick Durbin (D-IL) last week, in advance of the bill’s release.

“I have to be happy there is a bill, and I think that this is a beginning and a start of something where we do need to really fight very hard for our families,” said Tuyet Le, Executive Director of the Asian American Institute.

Le said she’s concerned that the elimination of family reunification visas for siblings and married adult children will particularly hurt Asian-Americans. “I think we rely on our family network for social support,” she said, mentioning that nearly half the people stuck in a backlog for family reunification visas are from Asian countries.

The bill also eliminates the diversity program, which awards 55,000 visas to immigrants from countries that are underrepresented in the U.S. In recent years, Africans comprised between 30 and 50 percent of those visa recipients. “This program was one of the only few options that Africans have to come to the US as immigrants,” explained Alie Kabba, Executive Director of the United African Organization.

“The elimination of the diversity program is reversing the clock in terms of African migration to the US,” said Kabba, “and it also undermines one of the seminal achievements of the Civil Rights movement, which was the democratization of the US immigration system to ensure that there was indeed a diverse stream of immigrants coming to the US.”

Kabba said his organization will fight to make sure that the principles behind the diversity visa program are incorporated into a new merit-based point system in the new bill. Under that system, those seeking citizenship can accrue points based on a range of factors, including their English language proficiency, their level of education, whether they specialize in high-demand professional fields, and civic involvement. Points will also be given for people in the family reunification categories that would be eliminated, namely siblings of U.S. citizens and adult children of citizens. The bill currently awards some points for people who come from countries that have few immigrants in the U.S.

“The whole configuration of the immigration system should be fair and should be humane, and it should not be just using immigrants as a tool for economic development,” said Jerry Clarito, Executive Director of the the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment. Clarito said the fundamental problem with the bill is that it shifts away from a family-based immigration system to one based on U.S. industry needs.

“The immigration system should be really fair and humane. It’s not about just skills,” said Clarito. “Otherwise, we are creating an elitist form of immigration, and this is really dangerous because it will trickle down to even the value-formation inside America, that they only value people with high skills. And we know in reality that’s not the case.”

The bill is expected to provoke extended debate before it comes to a vote.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her at @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.