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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 10, 2006

Family immigration process needs reform

By John Robert Egan

The debate about immigration policy seems to have run aground on the question of how to deal with the enormous number of undocumented labor migrants now in the United States, estimated to be from 12 to 15 million, mostly from Latin America. As important as this is, there is another important immigration issue that has been largely under-reported and is in serious need of attention. By focusing on labor migration exclusively, we have neglected the long-standing crisis in our family immigration system.

From a statistical perspective, the biggest immigration problem in Hawai'i is not undocumented labor migrants from Latin America. The far bigger problem locally is the backlog in family-reunification immigration, mostly from the Asia-Pacific region. Rough estimates suggest there are somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 undocumented immigrants in Hawai'i. On the other hand, the number of family members awaiting reunification in Hawai'i is well over 100,000 and growing.

While we work to bring our immigration laws into line with today's reality, we must not forget those who are already here, who came in legally with the intention of becoming citizens and now find their legitimate family members stuck in a system in serious need of reform. Real immigration reform must include keeping the pathway to citizenship clear for those who have followed the rules and have contributed so much to our economy and culture.

This backlog keeps local immigrant families from completing the migration process and fully integrating into our community. The Filipino community, because of an outdated visa quota system, is especially hard-hit. In some cases, the backlog in processing and visa quotas keeps qualified family members overseas from joining their American families for up to 22 years. The human hardship of postponed dreams and opportunities, family separation and financial burden is incalculable.

Fortunately, there has been strong support for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that includes visa reform, family immigration backlog reduction and the efficient integration of the now-fragmented immigration bureaucracy. Most of Hawai'i's congressional delegation support comprehensive immigration reform, rejecting the idea that we cannot touch these problems until we have the southern border under control.

The "enforcement first" approach does nothing for our local families hung up on the family visa waiting list for years. "Enforcement first" sounds to the politically attuned ear like "reform never." It also assumes that we cannot make progress on both issues simultaneously.

Our communities know better, and are working on their own, often with very modest resources, to help keep the promise of citizenship open to newcomers. There are classes throughout the community college system with dedicated teachers providing English language instruction and naturalization exam preparation for immigrants aspiring to become citizens. College students at Chaminade University and at the University of Hawai'i have been trained in assisting elders work through the citizenship application and documentation process. Nonprofit organizations like Na Loio, the Pacific Gateway Center and Catholic Charities support immigrants in their quest for citizenship as well.

Citizenship brings benefits and privileges. The right to vote and express our opinion about the leaders and the laws that govern us, to carry an American passport and to share the benefits of American life with family members are just some of these. But there are also responsibilities, such as contributing to the community and standing together to defend our nation when the need arises.

It is the balancing of these rights and duties that makes America the great nation it is. Keeping the pathway to full citizenship open and accessible to newcomers is one of the ways we keep that balance. It is also how we prevent America from developing a two-tier social class system, with separate laws and expectations. The path to citizenship is also the path to upward social mobility.

Acquiring citizenship also helps in a small way with the backlog problem. As permanent residents become citizens, their priority category moves up the processing list, and the waiting time for family reunification can sometimes be shortened.

For all of these reasons, it is good news to see U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie's initiative in sponsoring a citizenship fair at the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu on Aug. 19. It is free and open to the public, and immigrants who are ready to begin the citizenship process can obtain advice and assistance.

With all of the current noise and confusion about immigration policy, it is still unarguable that citizenship is the natural conclusion of the legal immigration process. Now is a good time to support and assist those in our own community who are ready to join us as citizens, and to find ways to support their efforts to become full members of the American family.

John Robert Egan is a Honolulu attorney who concentrates on immigration and nationality law. He also teaches courses as an adjunct professor at the University of Hawai'i on immigration and refugee law and humanitarian assistance.