Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Senate committee approves immigration reform bill after long debate (Updated)

Heliodoro Cardenas, 25, right, and his father-in-law Felipe Ortiz, both of Montebello, at the May 1, 2013 May Day immigration rally in downtown Los Angeles. The current immigrant visa system relies heavily on family ties, but the Senate immigration reform bill suggests a shift away from this.
Heliodoro Cardenas, 25, right, and his father-in-law Felipe Ortiz, both of Montebello, at the May 1, 2013 May Day immigration rally in downtown Los Angeles. The current immigrant visa system relies heavily on family ties, but the Senate immigration reform bill suggests a shift away from this. Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

UPDATE: After debating amendments on provisions ranging from border security to high-skilled worker visas, the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a comprehensive immigration bill by a 13-5 vote. The bill now moves to the Senate floor.

On Tuesday, the fifth day of amendment hearings, committee members dug into some of the more controversial issues: immigration rights for same-sex couples, changes to the family visa system, and whether immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally should have a path to citizenship.

Earlier in the day, an amendment from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas that would have barred unauthorized immigrants from obtaining U.S. citizenship was struck down. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii introduced only a few of her amendments pertaining to family-sponsored visas.

A Hirono amendment supported by immigrant advocates that would have preserved visas for siblings and older married children of U.S. citizens didn't come up for a vote. The Senate bill as it stands proposes eliminating family-sponsored visas for  siblings and adult sons and daughters over 30. Another Hirono amendment that would have allowed a limited number of visas for siblings or children of U.S. citizens facing extreme hardship was voted down. 

The most controversial measure came up at the end: An amendment from Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont that would have allowed gay and lesbian U.S. citizens to sponsor a same-sex spouse on an immigrant visa, as only straight married couples can do now. Many on the committee expressed support, but said they feared it might torpedo the larger bill. It was eventually withdrawn.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said the issue could become moot after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. A ruling is expected in June.

"I am for what Senator Leahy is proposing...I would just implore him to hold up on this amendment at this time," Feinstein said. "You have support. I think we're going to get it done. I think we can get it done in a way that will not blow apart this bill." 

A comprehensive immigration package from the House is expected soon. 

- Leslie Berestein Rojas and Kitty Felde

This week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on amendments to its immigration reform bill could help determine whether family ties will still be as important as they are now in the immigration system.

The committee has been taking up amendments related to Title 2 of the bill, which deals with immigrant visas. Front and center is the path to legal status and citizenship for the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., and how inclusive or exclusive it stands to be.

Less hyped, but still controversial, is the immigrant visa system.

The current system relies heavily on family sponsorship. The Senate bill proposes several changes: the elimination of siblings as family members that U.S. citizens can sponsor for visas, a cap at age 30 on visas for adult married children of U.S. citizens, and plans for a new merit-based visa that would award points based partly on family ties, but also based on education, work skills, time spent in the U.S. (for example, on a work visa) and other factors. 

"If this proposal goes through, I think we're going to look back at 2013 as the year that family unity was no longer a cornerstone of our immigration system," said Betty Hung, policy director of Los Angeles' Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which is supporting amendments that would keep the family-based visa system more or less as-is.

Proponents of awarding visas based on merit said it would be good for the economy; those who favor preserving the family-based system said the changes will exclude immigrants who lack the right skills and education, including many women. The Senate bill already proposes more employer visas for high-skilled workers, the recipients of which mostly tend to be men

A few of the amendments related to family visas that will likely be considered soon, sponsored by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii):

Another family-related amendment from Hirono adopted by voice vote Tuesday would exempt from visa limits - and thus, spare from long waits - the children of Filipino WWII veterans who were naturalized under laws rewarding them for their military service.

This would include adult children of these Filipino veterans who have died. Many Filipino WWII veterans who were naturalized by law in 1990 and began sponsoring their adult children have died during the process, leaving family members who spent years planning to come to the U.S. with little chance of doing so.

Hirono also introduced an amendment proposing a limited number of family visas for siblings or children of U.S. citizens "if such citizen would be subject to extreme hardship if such brother, sister, son, or daughter was not in the United States." It was voted down Tuesday.

See a list of amendments as they are voted on today here.

This story has been updated.

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