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How immigration debate pits national security against family unity
Victor Avalos, of Mexico, hugs his children, Nathan and Isabelle, as his wife, Kelly, looks on after Avalos became a citizen during a naturalization ceremony at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. - photo by Lois M. Collins
The standoff in Washington over immigration policy and whether it should be possible to bring family members to America a process called "family reunification" by those who support it and "chain migration" by those who oppose it feels very personal to Jean Claude Iyanuremye.

Iyanuremye lived in America three years before his family was allowed to join him. The Congolese man, now 30, arrived as a refugee in 2014 and tried to build a new life, but his thoughts were often on the wife and 4-month-old son he left behind thousands of miles away.

He didn't sleep. He couldn't focus. He lost weight and spent a great deal of time wondering how they were and what it would take to reunite his family and fix what felt like a broken heart. Last August, they arrived in Utah finally, and he says he can't stop smiling. Every aspect of his life feels better now, says Iyanuremye, whose job in the United States is helping other immigrants find work.

America is debating who it wants as immigrants and whether those allowed in should be able to sponsor family members. President Donald Trump this past week said he won't budge on his promises for dramatic immigration reform. He wants to replace America's longstanding emphasis on family-based immigration, perhaps with a merit-based point system. Family-based immigration has been part of the discussion on what to do about the Dreamers children brought here illegally by their parents when they were little. Its part of discussions around Trump's travel bans and reductions in refugee resettlement.

Trump says he worries immigrants will open the door to terrorists and other criminals and refers often to the case of Uzbekistan immigrant Sayfullo Saipov, 29, who was charged in a New York terror attack that killed eight. CHAIN MIGRATION must end now! Some people come in, and they bring their whole family with them, who can be truly evil, he tweeted, claiming Saipov brought in 23 relatives, though green card holders like Saipov can only sponsor a spouse and minor children.

Advocates for family reunification immigration say it has formed a cornerstone of American policy for half a century. "Since this country revised our immigration laws in 1965, family reunification has been the biggest piece of our permanent immigration system," says Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

"It's a long tradition in our country and it's pretty new in the policy world to be questioning the value of family migration. There have been debates about specific categories and numbers, but I think the level of skepticism is something that's new.

That skepticism overlooks the role family members play in immigrant success, she says. Immigrants generally don't receive much federal support to establish lives in the United States (refugees receive help for a limited amount of time).

"We've relied on families to help newcomers settle, to learn how to make their way in the U.S., to learn to find jobs, to learn to find better jobs. Families are key to immigration in the United States," Gelatt says.

Iyanuremye describes something more basic: "There is nothing like missing your child when he is growing up. He is the most important thing in my life. I am so glad to be here and so happy to be with my family."

Lots of rules

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended traditional country-of-origin quotas and instead prioritized highly skilled immigrants and those with family ties in the United States. At the time, a Gallup survey found 55 percent of Americans thought family relations were "very important" in who should relocate here. Even more 71 percent said the right occupational skills mattered.

New immigrants are barred from safety net benefits for their first five years. To get here, they must show they can support themselves. A family sponsor agrees to take some responsibility to ensure basic needs are met. Others come with employer sponsorship or through a lottery system that also vets ability to support themselves.

Skills and family ties often interact. Experts say family reunification helps attract the most highly skilled workers to America folks in big demand by employers in different countries but who choose America because close relatives can join them. Economist Harriet Duleep of the Institute for Labor Economics and William & Mary university has asked whether Albert Einstein would have stayed, had America not welcomed his sister Maja.

The National Foundation for American Policy asks foreign-born scientists what factors helped them decide to come to the United States. Foundation senior fellow Mark Regets says "family" is the item most often checked. "They can bring them or they have family here."

Green card holders can sponsor their spouses and unmarried kids for permanent residence. American citizens can petition to let parents, siblings and married adult children become residents. The process takes a while. The U.S. State Department said 3.9 million people were already in line last Nov. 1. The wait can range from months to 20 years or more, depending on where theyre coming from, relationship to their sponsor and the sponsors status.

Several immigration bills have or will be considered by Congress to change longstanding policy. For example, one would end immigration based on family ties for all but "nuclear" family: spouses and children.

But family matters if the goal is to attract immigrants permanently. Those with family are more prone to stay. In the 19th century, those who came alone returned to their homeland with money they'd earned or saved for passage of spouses, children and parents, says Maria Cristina Garcia, a professor of history and Latino studies at Cornell University.

"Today's immigrants are not that different. Whether it's the single mother who travels to New York City, hoping to eventually bring her children, or the software engineer who accepts the job in Silicon Valley on the condition that she can bring her family with her, immigration only makes sense if one can share the good and the bad with the people you care about the most," she says.

For over 150 years of immigration policy, Congress has noted need for family reunification, she says. In 1907, during the Gentlemen's Agreement with Japan, designed to reduce Japanese immigration here, Congress still allowed Japanese men in America to sponsor immigration of their wives. Under quotas from 1924 to 1965, Congress made "occasional exceptions" to reunite families. The War Brides Act of 1945 let American soldiers sponsor their "alien" spouses, outside of the quota system.

And it used family ties to woo some immigrants. "When the United States needed certain types of high-skilled expertise for post-war industries, they allowed scientists and engineers to migrate with their families because politicians knew these scientists and engineers were more likely to stay in the United States if they brought their families," Garcia says.

Some immigrants don't plan to stay or want to bring families. Some work, save money and go home to buy land or launch businesses. "While here, they provide necessary labor, pay taxes and contribute to the growth of our economy every time they purchase anything," says Garcia, author of "The Refugee Challenge in Post-Cold War America." They send money to family members who aren't here, too. Family matters.

Economic impact

The Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2001 declared that the family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by states. Immigration policy needs family reunification criteria that are culturally sensitive and situation specific. Resettlement success hinges on family, it says.

The American Immigration Council calls families crucial to the social and economic incorporation of newcomers and credits those bonds with helping the formation of immigrant communities which, in turn, offer a fertile environment for the development of businesses. Its studies find immigrants in America on family visas tend to improve their finances as they integrate, which boosts what they contribute to their new country.

One of the overlooked aspects is how much family members help in the care economy, providing child care, elder care and other help to relatives and within communities. Such unpaid work constitutes a very large portion of Americas gross domestic product, says AIC.

When the National Academies of Sciences reported on trends of immigration integration, considering factors like whether immigrant families learn English, find jobs and thrive for generations, it found a largely positive picture, says Gelatt.

The president and many of his supporters see a different picture. In praising the late civil rights activist Barbara Jordan, Trump said Wednesday that she called for an end to chain migration, which has allowed millions upon millions of low-skilled foreign nationals to compete for opportunities and resources against our most vulnerable American citizens many of whom come from African-American and Hispanic-American communities.

Despite such differences, discussion about immigration policy is good, Gelatt adds. "I think it's reasonable to debate the skill mix of the immigrants that can most benefit the United States. Debate is the best way to make sure the immigration system meets our national interests."

No system's perfect, either. "On the security side, you can always improve security and vetting, but in general there have been a lot of improvements since Sept. 11, and hopefully that will keep on improving." She notes immigrants undergo the same careful vetting process whether they arrive through employer or family sponsorship or some other immigration stream.

"There is nothing less secure about family-based immigration," says Gelatt.

The International Rescue Committee works on family reunification for refugees, and Patrick Poulin, executive director of the Salt Lake and Missoula offices, sees it as an integral part of helping immigrants resettle and thrive.

"It's human nature. We all want to be with our families," he says. Reunification is "a way to make sure families are whole. Families that have had to flee, that have been stateless, that become separated that's emotionally awful for people." Reunited families can focus on full integration, rather than being consumed by worrying about loved ones overseas. They can build a new life.

Good or bad

Some Americans are of two minds about immigration policy, Regets notes. They may not want immigrants who don't have very good job skills, but also complain that highly skilled immigrants take away good-paying jobs, for example.

Sorting why people feel conflicted about immigration would involve philosophy, sociology and neuroscience, he says wryly. "We worry more about what somebody else might do to us than what we will do to ourselves. We worry more about those outside the tribe than those in the tribe. There is a fear of difference."

Gelatt says immigrants tend to work, regardless of their skill level. And employers need workers across a skill spectrum. Their labor boosts the ability of businesses to compete and they spend their earnings to buy goods and services. They support social safety net programs through their taxes. They help the economy.

Although the government doesn't control skill levels in a family-based system, she says, "I would argue that immigrants in general are contributing." As a group, she adds, they tend to be entrepreneurial.

Michelle Mittelstadt of Migration Policy Institute notes 48 percent of all immigrants to the United States from 2011-2015 had a college degree, higher than the 31 percent college graduation rate for the U.S.-born in that period and up from the 27 percent a quarter-century ago.

"It's hard to see how having family near hurts," Regets says. They help each other, provide care, work in family businesses and more. He credits immigrants with providing an extra level of screening, too. "If they think their brother is good for nothing, they won't sponsor him. That's a form of extra screening we didn't have in the old days when immigration was just (a matter of) showing up."

Were Regets to implement a point system like that proposed by the president, he says he'd replace the lottery. "Don't try to replace family migration. They are helpful to us and are certainly helping us to recruit high-quality immigrants, who are much less likely to come if we are hostile to families."