Although many people associate comprehensive immigration reform solely with issues of legalization and deportation of undocumented immigrants, the truth is that millions of legal immigrants are also victims of our broken immigration system—a system that has been floundering for the last 20 years.

This week, Congressman Mike Honda will reinforce that point when he introduces the House version of The Reuniting Families Act of 2009, a bill that would end lengthy wait times for U.S. citizens and permanent residents separated from their foreign-born loved ones. The Asian American Justice Center, a leader on family immigration issues, estimates that 5.8 million people—a yearly average of 20,000 people—are currently in immigration processing backlogs, kept from the family members by arbitrary caps, processing delays, and an outdated system. Some family members—like those from China, the Philippines and India—wait up to 5, 10 or 20 years before they are reunited with their loved ones.

Congressman Honda’s bill is a companion to a similar bill introduced last month by Senators Menendez, Schumer, Gillibrand, and Kennedy. Both bills propose common sense changes to current procedures, including:

  • Authorizing the use of family-based and employment-based visas previously allocated by Congress which remain unused.
  • Allowing current and future green card holders to reunite with their spouses and minor children immediately, rather than wait five years or more to bring loved ones together.
  • Increasing the percentage of people from any country who may be given green cards each year. This adjustment would not change overall visa numbers.
  • Allowing orphans, widows and widowers whose parent or spouse dies before the immigration process is completed to become legal residents if qualified.
  • Promoting family unity by allowing more people to use the system: The bill gives the Attorney General greater flexibility to address numerous hardships, including family separation, caused by a provision that bars individuals who had been unlawfully present in the United States from utilizing our legal immigration system.
  • Recognizing the sacrifices that certain World War II Filipino veterans made for this country by allowing their children to become legal residents regardless of any numerical limits that apply to the Philippines.

The Honda bill would also ends discrimination in immigration law, allowing same-sex partners to reunite under specified conditions by including provisions of a bill championed by Senator Leahy and others. This provision adds another layer of opportunity or complication to immigration reform, depending on one’s point of view.

While Honda’s Reuniting Families Act would make a difference on its own, it is generally a very modest proposal to clean up, rather than expand, the current immigration system. Thus, its real strength lies in promoting a debate over the role of the family in immigration reform. Honda said in a statement:

The Reuniting Families Act should be at the heart of comprehensive immigration reform, seeking to fix our broken immigration system while taking into account the current economic climate. By providing American workers with a vital social safety net-that is, their family—we help make our communities stronger and more resilient. The benefits here cannot be overstated. American workers with families by their side are happier, healthier and more able to succeed than those distanced from loved ones for years on end.

Having strong champions for family reunification increases the chances that family issues will have an important seat at the table during comprehensive immigration reform. In turn, this ensures that more voices are heard in the debate and makes sure that legal immigrants and their families are not discounted in the decisions Congress makes about how to divvy up the immigration pie. The failure of the 2007 Senate bill, in which family issues were essentially pitted against other immigration reforms—winner take all style—reminds us all that family issues matter to the American public.