Black immigrants and others stand to lose if the United States’ system of family-based visas is changed, according to religious and immigration reform activists.

As the nation eagerly awaits legislative language on comprehensive immigration reform, which could be released any time now, early indications suggest possible reductions in visas available to foreign-born family members of U.S. citizens. Some in the faith community are bristling to take on that fight.

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on March 31, Gang of Eight member Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said a key goal of the legislation would be to “turn our chain migration family-based immigration system into a merit-based, immigration system with a family component.”

But religious and other pro-reform groups say the alleged proposal, which could seek to reduce or eliminate family-based visas available to the siblings and to the married adult children of U.S. citizens, would break up families and destabilize networks that support the success of new immigrants.

“To depend on immigrants for some of the hardest work in this country and then to deny them the opportunity to be reunited with their families is nothing less than a sin,” said Bishop Minerva Carcaño, resident bishop of the United Methodist Church, Los Angeles Conference, during an April 3 media call with reporters, which was hosted by the Faith in Action coalition.

“To deny people the right to reunite with their families is an act of violence against the family unit,” Church World Service President/CEO Rev. John McCullough told the {AFRO}. He added, “We believe family unity is at the core of any society, so whatever debate is being had, has to take that into consideration.”

But the forthcoming bill seems to be focused more on how immigration policy can boost the economy, as Graham’s statement indicated. And reducing family-based visas will make room for more visas based on employment, proponents say. Most new legal permanent residents in the U.S. gain their status through family ties, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. In 2011, for example, 65 percent of the more than 1 million new legal permanent residents were granted their green card based on a family relationship with a U.S. citizen or resident.

“We are not bringing in skilled immigrants in sufficient numbers to meet our needs and to maximize future American prosperity,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wrote in his new book on immigration reform. He later added, “Unlike every other country, in America, family members of existing immigrants account for a large majority of new lawful entrants into our country, crowding out most others, including immigrants who would contribute greatly to economic growth.”

But proponents of maintaining visas based on family ties say immigration is not a zero-sum game where one goal, reuniting families, necessitates sacrificing another—economic prosperity, or where either goal should outweigh the other.

“Some are trying to pit economic interests against family,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka during the April 3 teleconference. “They say that ‘on merit,’ brothers and sisters and children and spouses are worth less than people employers prefer. The labor movement doesn’t buy that for one second. The idea that family unity stands in opposition to economic growth is completely backwards. Strong families are critical to our economic growth.”

Jen Smyers, associate director of immigration and refugee policy at Church World Service, said the suggestion that immigrants who gain residency via family ties are mere leeches on the economy is erroneous.

“People who come through family immigration contribute to this economy,”

Smyers said in an interview. “The founder of Google (Sergey Brin) came to this country as a refugee; the of Intel (Andrew Grove) came here through a family-based visa. These are people who have contributed thousands of jobs to the economy.”

Additionally, she said, reuniting families means that more income would be invested in America, in homes and consumer goods, for example, instead of being sent out of the country via remittances.

Both Smyers and McCullough voiced another concern—that giving preference to visas based on education levels and skill sets could create an immigration system that is less diverse.

For instance, the majority of Black immigrants from the Caribbean, who represent half of the approximately 3 million immigrants of African descent in the U.S., gain residency through family ties. Increasing job-based visas according to educational attainment or technical skills, McCullough said, “may open up the possibility of discrimination against a certain group of people, likely based on race” because the quality of education in some developing parts of the world, such as in the Caribbean, may be lacking.

The same is true for a potential gender-based bias, Smyers added, since in some women in many countries don’t have equal access to education and training.

Advocates said that instead of reducing family-based visas, or creating a system where preference is given to one category over the other, lawmakers should concentrate on increasing the number of available visas and streamlining an arduous application process, among other fixes.

Demand for visas has long exceeded supply, creating a backlog. Current immigration law places caps on the number of visas available for the married adult children of U.S. citizens at 23,400 per year, and those for the siblings of citizens at 65,000. The immediate families of legal permanent residents also face visa caps.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, 4.4 million approved visa petitioners were still waiting on open slots for permanent residency status last year; 97 percent had been approved through family ties.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO