Immigration Reform May Throw Siblings Under the Bus

Everyone knows the current immigration system is broken. For brothers and sisters waiting for family visas, the way some lawmakers hope to fix it could make things even worse.

By Seth Freed Wessler Mar 26, 2013

Nadine Rogers is the kind of immigrant that Republicans and Democrats say they’d like to have more of–those highly trained in science and technology fields thought to be essential to a competitive U.S. economy. She left Trinidad for the United States in 1988 to earn a master’s degree in communications, and then a Ph.D. in behavioral sciences. She got a job at a Fortune 500 company that in 1993 sponsored her green card. Five years later she became a citizen. If an immigration reform bill passes this year, it’s sure to include an expansion of work-based visas for people like her. But for Rogers, who is in her late 40s, the contours of the current discussion don’t fit real life. That’s because Republicans have been hinting that to make room for more immigrants like her, they will reduce the number of visas available to their siblings and adult children. "Green cards are economic engines for the country," Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., a member of the so-called Senate Gang of Eight working on immigration reform, recently told the [Associated Press]( "This is not a family court we’re dealing with here. We’re dealing about an economic need." That’s a problem for Rogers; the only relative she has a relationship with is her 30-year-old brother, Michael, who has been waiting in Trinidad for a family visa for seven years. **"Emotional Refugees"** Rogers, who now works for the U.S. government, came to America alone. She would regularly send money home, visit her mother and brother at least once a year, and she began welcoming Michael to the U.S. each Christmas starting when he was 12. Rogers was invested in her life here but says it was lonely. Her mother didn’t want to leave Trinidad and Michael decided to remain there to help support their mother and aging grandmother. That was the story until 2006, when their mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. "We buried everybody, my grandparents, my parents," Rogers tells me. In 2006 she petitioned the U.S. government for a green card for Michael because "he didn’t have a support system anymore." They didn’t expect to wait seven years. Immigration laws don’t limit the number of petitions for spouses, minor children and parents of United States citizens. But the government does set thresholds for other kinds of relatives including the siblings and adult and married children of U.S. citizens, and the spouses and children of green-card holders. The annual cap for family visas is currently 226,000.

Nadine Rogers and brother Michael (Photo courtesy of Rogers)

Because the number of applicants far exceeds the number of available slots, there’s a backlog. Right now there are 4 million people on waiting lists, and it can take years to get off them. According to State Department, the government is only now handling applications for siblings filed in April 2001. That means there are five years worth of petitions that the government will process ahead of Michael’s. "I use the terminology ’emotional refugee’ for him," Rogers says of her brother, who did not want to use his last name in this story. "He’s educated, he works [selling radio airtime], he is not destitute, but he does not have a family. Nobody was meant to live that way." The waits are even longer for immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines, for which the government is processing applications from 1996 and 1989 respectively. **Trading Siblings for Workers** When politicians say that an immigration reform bill will require undocumented immigrants to "go to the back of the line," they don’t usually mention the decades-long backlog. Democrats tend to be more flexible in their approach to eliminating it. For example, leading immigration reformer Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have proposed boosting the overall number of visas to meet the demand. Republicans, however, have floated the idea of eliminating the sibling category altogether. Sen. Graham recently said he wanted to replace the visas allocated for what some call extended family–the sisters, brothers and adult married children of United States citizens–with those for workers. "Green cards should be reserved for the nuclear family," he declared. Currently two-thirds of the green cards the federal government grants come through family-based petitions while about 15 percent come through employment-based applications. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., echoed Graham in a House Judiciary hearing last Monday. "Just because it’s painful–you made a choice to come to America– [that] doesn’t necessarily mean [you] get to bring your aging parents or your brother and sister. It just does not mean that," he said. **Family is Family** It’s unlikely that a new law limiting sibling green cards would exclude people like Michael who have already applied for a family visa. But his big sister Nadine says that a narrow definition of family is still problematic. "I don’t have parents, I don’t have a spouse, and I don’t have children," she says. "To tell me that my brother is not my nuclear family is hurtful and it’s also inaccurate. We don’t define family that way in America." Greg Chen, advocacy director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says the real problem is arbitrary immigration caps. "Some Republicans come from the perspective that the number of people who receive green cards needs to be finite. They think if we want to increase green cards in one category that we must reduce it in another because they say it’s zero-sum game." In last Monday’s committee hearing Sessions said the issue isn’t the number of visas in the pool but to whom they’re distributed. "No one is proposing [with] any seriousness that we’re going to restrict fundamentally the number of people that come into our country. We just need to decide how and what standards we would use for that." Leading Democrats have resisted this formulation. "As we consider comprehensive reform, we must not pit visas for family-based immigrants against those sponsored by employers," Leahy said at the hearing. But Rogers believes existing laws have already failed to strike the right balance for non-nuclear families. "I have always been in the category of immigrant that [lawmakers] talk about," she says. "But I also need my brother to be here." This story has been altered since publication.