Righting a Wrong: Family Reunification and Immigration Reform

Photo credit: mdfriendofhillary / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: mdfriendofhillary / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

As debate around the immigration reform bill is expected to heat up on the Senate floor, a contested provision allowing for some non-criminal deportees to return to the United States remains intact. For how long, no one is quite sure. The controversial measure, outlined in Section 2101 of the current bill, would permit deported immigrants with children, parents, or spouses who are currently U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to petition for a waiver to return to the U.S. and apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status. While reprieves have been granted to undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. in the past—under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and President Obama’s DACA memorandum last July—never before has a Congressional or Executive effort to overhaul immigration policy contemplated the return of deportees.

The “right to return” provision survives even as the rate of deportations continues to soar. Since 2009, the Obama administration has removed 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants and is on track to surpass 2 million by the end of fiscal year 2013. According to recent federal data unearthed through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, 205,000 undocumented immigrants with at least one U.S. citizen child were deported between July 2010 and September 2012, representing an average of 90,000 per year. The contentious deportee measure stems from acknowledgement on the part of the bill’s authors of the destructive effects that these enforcement policies have had on American families, particularly U.S. citizen children. A spokesman for Senator Marco Rubio, one of the bill’s most conservative drafters, noted that the Senator had “personally concluded that giving parents a chance to reunite with their children was the right thing to do.” The toll that family separation takes on the mental and physical health of children has only recently attracted serious attention, with studies suggesting links between parental deportation and depression, separation anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and poor cardiovascular health.

Central to the compromise reached by the bill’s sponsors – known as the Gang of Eight – is the question of how to prioritize family reunification without shattering the bill’s prospects. The argument from the right has been that in promoting family-based immigration, the 1986 reform prompted the larger waves of immigration seen since then. In response to these concerns over “chain migration,” however exaggerated they may be, the proposed legislation calls for a gradual move away from the family-based immigration model, eliminating some 90,000 annual visas given to the siblings and married adult children of legal immigrants and granting up to 110,000 visas to immigrants skilled in science and math. Democrats have viewed this shift toward a more comprehensive “merit-based” system as a necessary compromise, but have built into the bill measures such as the “right to return” as well as an expedited path to citizenship for DREAMers (the children of unauthorized immigrants) and a clearing of family-based immigration backlogs – all of which vindicate the importance of the nuclear family. It is time for Senators from the right to follow the lead of Republican drafters and make some concessions of their own, including the Gang of Eight’s compromise to allow for the reunification of families torn apart by a decade of immigration enforcement policies run amok. Immigration reform must have as its foundation a concern for family unity and a respect for what families contribute to our society. It should also take into account the welfare of 4.5 million U.S. citizen children in mixed-status homes who will be better equipped to contribute to our society if they have the opportunity to grow up in the presence of their parents.

Immigration Reform Legislation: Better than Nothing, But Still Flawed

Immigration reform rally / Photo credit: quixoticlife / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Immigration reform rally / Photo credit: quixoticlife / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The comprehensive immigration reform proposal that the bipartisan group of U.S. Senators dubbed the “Gang of Eight” released on April 17 is an important step forward but probably dooms us to repeat history.  The plan includes mechanisms for documenting the roughly 11 million inhabitants of the U.S. who are now living in the shadows and opening a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have been in the country since December 2011.  The process to gain citizenship would be long – taking typically 13 years – arduous, and expensive, requiring payment of substantial fees and fines.  The Senate Judiciary Committee began its review of the bill on May 9, covering 30 of 300 proposed amendments.  Prospects for the legislation remain uncertain, as the fragile alliance among these eight senators may not be sufficient to sway skeptics on both the left and right of the political spectrum.  If passed, the measures would take effect after the U.S. government certified that heightened border security measures have been implemented.

Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform from both sides of the aisle have long called for a “once-and-for-all” solution to the country’s broken immigration system.  Nevertheless, the original 867-page proposal – like the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that regulated the status of just under three million undocumented immigrants – is by no means a permanent fix.  In an important sense it cannot be: it reflects a static conception of immigration, whereas historical analysis of migration patterns shows that they are inevitably dynamic processes, responding to unpredictable fluctuations in labor supply and demand in sending and receiving economies alike.

However imperfect it may be, the Senate bill represents the most promising step yet to address this ongoing challenge.  Proposed amendments introduced thus far have not addressed the dynamic nature of the problem, focusing instead on the digression of border security, as if fences or bloodhounds were capable of controlling cross-border population flows.  Institutional frameworks that acknowledge the dynamic factors that shape human migration and offer avenues for managing the movement of peoples intelligently are on the back burner.  As AU history Professor Alan Kraut has suggested, one way that legislators could achieve this would be through establishment of a commission on foreign and domestic economies and labor markets that would conduct periodic reviews of the conditions associated with optimum migration flows.  Absent the deeper understanding of migration that such reviews would provide, the U.S. legislation – albeit better than nothing – will probably yet again repeat the error of proclaiming an unattainable once-and-for-all resolution of immigration policy.