BECAUSE most US citizens are immigrants or their descendants, any immigration reform proposal is inevitably greeted with both caution and emotion. Immigration policy announces to the world both our national values and vision of the kind of society we want to become. In deciding how many immigrants to admit and who they will be, the US government also speaks of its commitment to family unification and its openness to cultural pluralism. The United States Senate recently sent an important signal when it passed the Immigration Act of 1989. Senators grappled with fundamental questions: Should there be an absolute limit on immigration of family members even if this results in prolonged separation of families? Should we create immigration opportunities for ``new seed'' immigrants who have no family ties or job offers in the US? If so, how does the US maintain its commitment to family preservation?
The Senate, in answering these questions, voted not to impose an absolute limit on the number of family members who can immigrate annually. It also supported - without sacrificing family immigration - a point system to select ``new seed'' immigrants.
The Senate vote represents an important shift from the past, when legislation introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming passed the Senate almost without debate. These senators based their bill on the assumption that the nation would not tolerate immigration flow above a certain point. Thus, in order to establish both strict limits and a new immigration category in an era of increased demand for visas, some existing categories would have to sacrifice visas.
Unfortunately the ``sacrificial'' categories were the family based ones. The original bill would have created competition between various family categories, cutting into those which allow US citizens to petition for their adult children or brothers and sisters. The original bill would also have made it difficult for permanent residents to reunite with spouses and children - a critical category for the 1.7 million newly legalized persons who are only now becoming eligible to petition for their families. Another consequence of the original bill would have been an increase of the number of European immigrants at the expense of Asians and Hispanics - groups that today constitute the vast majority of family-sponsored immigrants. While the bill passed in the Senate last year, it has this year provoked a number of successful challenges.
What makes this session of Congress so different? After thorough and extensive debate, members now recognize that immigration reform must be pro-family, that changes in the US legal-immigration system must not come at the expense of family-derived immigration. The bill is provoking many senators into a passionate defense of family unity.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona proposed an amendment, modifying the bill's premise that close family members should have to compete for visas. The amendment carried overwhelmingly. Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island successfully offered an amendment that protects the immediate families of newly legalized persons from being separated forcibly by deportation.
The Senate vote affirms that reunited families are and must remain the cornerstone of American legal-immigration policy; it recognizes that families fulfill our humanitarian ideals and help meet our labor market needs. While the Senate decided to set a limit on legal immigration, the limit does not come at the expense of family values or economic interests. Nor does it come at the expense of the Asian and Hispanic communities.
The congressional debate on legal-immigration reform will continue. The House of Representatives now must make its mark. Its challenge is to build on the Senate effort, passing a measure that - by eliminating parts of the Senate bill which still unnecessarily limit family immigration - is even more pro-family and pro-immigrant.
For the first time in many years, Congress is poised to create bipartisan legal-immigration legislation that affirms US commitment to family and cultural pluralism. These values make the US strong and will continue to enhance our humanitarian ideals and economic vitality. As representatives of both the older and newer immigrants to this nation, we urge Congress to remember the values and economic interests that are affected by Immigration policy..