Decades apart: How our immigration system fails families

Today is the first day of Immigrant Heritage Month, a month to honor and celebrate the contributions of immigrants to the United States. This month, we are remembering the families that have been left behind in the immigrant visa backlogs.

Leng Leng Chancey (far right) and her sister are just one family who have spent years apart because of the broken immigration system. Chancey works for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). (Photo courtesy of Leng Leng Chancey)

Our family is our backbone and the fabric that ties us together. We rely on our families for care, support and for our well-being, but 4.4 million people in the United States are missing their families at the dinner table.

So many people are not together with their families because the family-based immigration system hasn’t been updated in more than two decades.

Leng Leng Chancey of Atlanta, Georgia, dreams of having her older sister, whom she calls “Jie”, join her in the United States and says her sister was always the one in her family looking out for her and making sure she was safe while they were growing up. Having lived apart for 25 years, they applied for a green card, but Chancey’s sister is still stuck waiting in the backlogs and lives alone in Beijing. “Jie” has missed the birth of all of Leng Leng’s children and many years of birthdays.

It could take approximately take 17 years before Chancey’s sister’s application would be considered.

Of the four million people who are in situations like Chancey’s, 1.8 million people from Asian countries are waiting to be reunited with their families in the U.S. Of all racial groups, Asian Americans are the most heavily foreign-born population.

Congressional leaders who support immigrant families have a solution to end the prolonged separation of families: the Reuniting Families Act, introduced by Congressman Mike Honda (CA-17). The bill’s focus is to make it easier for families to stay together. For instance, it would make sure that unused visas that are employment-based and family-sponsored between 1992 and 2015 are used, and the bill would increase immigration limits of certain countries.

We also know the concept of family is much more broad than what is considered family by the current immigration system. The Reuniting Families Act would reclassify spouses and children under age 21 as “immediate relatives” of lawful permanent residents. The immediate relative category isn’t subject to numerical limits, so spouses and children wouldn’t have to wait as long to join their families in the U.S.

LGBT families encounter several hardships because of the discriminatory nature of immigration laws. This legislation would also allow citizens and legal permanent residents in same-sex relationships to sponsor their partner for immigration to the U.S.

We need our immigration to better reflect America’s family values because behind the numbers and statistics, there are families who want to be able spend time together, not decades apart.

Anyone who has a story of bringing a family to the U.S. or have someone still waiting can help make this legislation become a reality. Follow @NCAPAtweets, tweet your #ImmigrationStoryin5Words, share a blog and look out for upcoming initiatives to keep families together.

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All throughout June, tweet @NCAPAtweets your immigration stories with #ImmigrationStoryin5Words.