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Mee Moua Headshot

The Time Is Now to Reunite Families

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Congress is poised to release a comprehensive immigration reform bill this week, and all but one issue remains outstanding -- fixing the broken family immigration system. Today, thousands convene in Washington, D.C. to rally for comprehensive and meaningful solutions, while millions will make their voices heard with echo events across the country. Many come in the names of their mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and children. They have traveled thousands of miles from all across the country to demand that a true path to comprehensive reform means that no one gets left out, especially families who want to be reunited.

More than four million Americans are waiting to be reunited with their family members. Reforming our family immigration system is a long-overdue necessity. Although family immigration is a key issue for Asian-American families, many Latino, African, and Caribbean families are also trapped in massive backlogs, experiencing inhumane wait times for reunification. Among immigrant groups, the number of visas granted each year (there are only 480,000 family visas granted annually) and wait times vary but the story remains the same -- we rely heavily on family-based visas to reunite our families and are at the mercy of the system's vagaries.

As the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S., Asian Americans compose 6 percent of the population, many of whom came to the U.S. to reunite with U.S. citizen family members. In 2012 alone, approximately 86 percent of visas issued for Asian nations were family-based visas. Additionally, Asian-American citizens sponsor approximately one-third of all family-based visas, thus Asian-American families are disproportionately affected by the backlogs, which can last up to 23 years.

For African and Caribbean immigrants, three out of every four visas issued for African immigrants were family based. Among Caribbean families, 99 percent of visas issued were family-based. Haiti and Jamaica combined have almost 124,000 loved ones waiting in line. Although the wait time for African and Caribbean immigrants is relatively shorter than for Asians, they can still wait up to 12 years.

The conversation around Latino immigrants is often times focused on finding a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants and border security, but Latino families must also endure the hardship of being separated from their loved ones. One-and-a-half million Latinos are waiting to join their loved ones in the U.S., making up one-third of the backlog. Some Latinos can wait as long as 20 years to be reunited with their families.

A lot can happen in 20 years. Children who originally petitioned as minors become adults, thereby putting them in a different line that can be much longer. Take for example, Meeran Mahmud, a staff attorney at our Los Angeles affiliate. When Meeran came to the U.S. with her family, her older sister was left behind in Pakistan because she turned 22 before her visa was approved. Their petition was filed in 1986. She turns 40 this year.

Siblings who may only have each other live their lives in waiting, as adult sibling petitions are a lower priority and must wait much longer than petitioning spouses, children or parents. Such is the case for Angie Kim, age 29. Twenty years ago, Angie and her parents came to the U.S. to care for her ailing grandparents. After her grandparents passed away, Angie's family was forced into the shadows, enduring the hardships of living without authorization. When her younger brother was approved for a visa through his stepmother, he petitioned for Angie to remain here. As his sister, however, she must endure the long backlogs. Under the current system, she will be 42 years old by the time she's approved.

For Angie's family and Meeran's family and other families like those of our Filipino World War II veterans or LGBT community members, this narrow definition of family does not work and is unacceptable as the baseline for family-based immigration. As I've said many times before, family is family -- for us to start trading away and choosing which family member is a higher priority is a drastic and dramatic departure from our core values as a nation.

As I stated before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whether it was through the Mayflower, Ellis Island, Angel Island or now from all our ports of entry, most immigrants came to the U.S. with nothing but hope and their families. Regardless of the hardships they encountered or endured, hope and family permitted each successive generation to muster the courage to survive, persevere and make a deeply rooted life in this country. We may all come from different national origins, eat different foods, practice different religions and even speak different languages, but the immigrant heart is what binds us as one people -- united in hope and opportunity for a more prosperous future for our families. That is why we love this land. For those who are working hard for our prosperous economy, let our policies also work for them.

As Congress works diligently to put forth a bill, it must not forget that families are the cornerstone of American progress and American immigration policy -- families like Meeran's and Angie's and the thousands rallying today.