The Value of Family Visas

In the 1960s, my uncle settled down in Neshoba County, Mississippi, a very distant and vastly different place from our native Philippines, where he became the physician of Blacks, Choctaws, and the few Whites who came to trust the “Chinaman.” As soon as he was able, he applied for visas for his siblings and parents. In the mid-seventies, my grandparents, titas (aunts), and tito (uncle) came to the U.S. They provided much comfort to their eldest brother who was finally able to speak in Ilonggo again and enjoy dishes he had not tasted in years. My titas and tito eventually found their own way to Chicago and California where they thrived in their professions and started their own families. My lola (grandmother) became the trusted caregiver of my cousins, traveling whenever and wherever she was needed.

If some lawmakers have their way however, immigrants, under immigration reform, would no longer be able to sponsor their siblings, just their spouses and children. Under our current immigration system, a good majority of legal immigrants arrive with family visas and only a fraction come with employment visas. Republicans want it the other way around, arguing that replacing family visas with employment visas for high-skilled workers would strengthen our economy.

These politicians need to realize however that pamilya is very important to Filipinos and other Asian Americans, our fastest growing racial/ethnic group, just as it is to Latino Americans, our largest community of color. Do Democrats want to lose the strong support of these communities? Do Republicans want to continue alienating them? And, if the idea is to attract the world’s best and brightest, do lawmakers really believe that these desirable immigrants will come knowing that they will not be able to send for their sisters and brothers?

We also need to remember that immigrants who arrive with family visas eventually contribute to our economy as producers, consumers, and taxpayers. They not only produce as wage earners and entrepreneurs, but as unpaid labor as well. An Urban Institute report I wrote outlines how unpaid work, especially caregiving and household production, adds to our overall productivity. Take my lola for example. By babysitting her grandchildren and tending house, she saved my titas and titos a considerable sum and freed them to go out and work. Multiply that by the number of other grandparents, aunties, and uncles who help out when they get here and you have a strong economic argument for family visas.

Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, told the Washington Post that extended family members are the “people you need to build a support network. We’re talking about a U.S. citizen where the sister has a small business and wants to sponsor her brother who has the technical skills to help run that business. The fallacy is that folks think of immediate relatives not contributing to the economy. That’s not true.”

Moreover, members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus argue that “eliminating these categories would produce only a small reduction in visas while creating greater hardship for thousands of U.S. citizens and their loved ones.”

Perhaps politicians who want to cut the number of family visas should take pause and think about the implications, not just for immigrants, but for our shared prosperity and progress.

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