06/07/2013 08:54 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

The Obligation of Balancing Tradition and Reform

Nearly 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy advocated for immigration reform which led to the eventual signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This bill, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, forever changed our immigration system and acknowledged the value of family unity for stronger communities. By coming together and tackling this controversial issue, Democrats and Republicans fixed what was then a broken immigration system. Fast-forward 40 years to 2006: The late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Sen. John McCain attempted to pass comprehensive immigration reform and carry on the legacy of President Kennedy. When Sen. Kennedy was asked about family reunification in 2006, he replied:

I think our tradition of the Statue of Liberty is to be willing to accept the unwashed as well as the highly skilled. There are a lot of people who haven't had opportunities in other places as a result of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes and discrimination. Are we going to say we refuse to let any of those individuals come in because we've got someone who has happened to have a more advantaged situation? I'm not sure that's what this country is all about.

Sen. Kennedy's words still ring true today, as the Gang of Eight's immigration bill hits the Senate floor. The bill's original co-sponsor, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C), was unapologetic in his attacks to limit the family reunification process by using xenophobic terms such as "chain migration" to describe our adult sons, daughters, sisters, brothers and parents, who seek the same opportunities available to their loved ones who now reside here. Sen. Graham and some of his colleagues often discount the success of our family immigration system that has created American entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, and innovators.

I am deeply grateful to the champions like Sen. Mazie Hirono and Sen. Patrick Leahy who continued to fight for all families during the Senate Judiciary committee markup process. The strong vote in the Senate Judiciary committee, 13-5, was a key moment in the immigrants' rights movement, and brings us one step closer to passing commonsense immigration reform. However bittersweet it was, there are many provisions in the bill that must be protected and strengthened as the Senate begins its debate.

For the millions of loved ones waiting in our inhumane backlogs, if passed, they could reunite with their loved ones sooner rather than later. The bill promises to eliminate the visa backlog within eight to 10 years. For some, eight years is far better than having to wait 24, which some siblings are on record for having to endure. The Senate bill also allows an 18-month grace period for American citizens to petition for their adult married sons and daughters and siblings to come to the U.S, after which, those avenues will be eliminated.

Another key reform to our family system is the reclassification of "immediate relatives" to include those spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents, also known as green card holders. This fix, allows all families, regardless of citizenship to reunite faster with their spouses and minor children. This provision is an important step to building stronger families.

Lastly, Sen Hirono (D-HI) offered a long-overdue amendment that allows Filipino World War II veterans to swiftly reunite with their children. These brave men and women proudly served our country and with their service they were granted citizenship. However, their children had to endure massive wait times to joint their parents. Some veterans have been waiting decades to reunite with their children. This is simply unacceptable. Sen. Hirono's amendment allows the children of these veterans to reunite with their now-elderly parents, many of whom would benefit greatly from the love and care of their family members. On a voice vote, both Republicans and Democrats easily passed this amendment.

However, the bill's family reunification reforms will undoubtedly affect the millions of Americans and future Americans looking to reunite with their loved ones in the U.S. If we stand idly by and do nothing to strengthen the avenue for siblings and adult married sons and daughters to reunite with their families, will we, as a nation, be here in 10 years, or maybe 20 years from now, repeating the same arguments for a robust family immigration system? For the sake of our families, I hope not.

The Senate Judiciary committee vote was the first of many hurdles to come for immigration reform, and the Asian American community along with the Latino, African American, civil rights, LGBT and the faith communities will continue to advocate for the inclusion of all families in the final bill -- our families are depending on us.