A legislative proposal backed by the White House calls for a gradual, earned path to citizenship for about 1.8 million young unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children. In exchange, the president wants ramped-up enforcement, more border security, and dramatic cuts to the nation's longtime legal immigration system.
Especially worrisome for advocates of the current family-based immigrant system is that U.S. citizens and legal residents could only sponsor spouses and minor children as legal immigrants under the proposal. They could no longer bring in parents, siblings, or adult children to live in the U.S.
The package co-sponsored by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and several other Republicans would allow parents to visit their U.S. citizen children, but only on renewable five-year, non-immigrant visas. The parents would not be allowed to work.
Advocates of the current family-based system oppose the idea. Megan Essaheb, director of immigration advocacy with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said that would create a kind of underclass.
“Those parents should have full rights," said Essaheb. "They should be able to work, they should be able to vote."
Essaheb said as a practical matter, most families could not afford to bring in their parents since their U.S. citizen children would have to support them and pay for their health care.
"That would limit those visas to wealthier people," she said.
Immigration hawks are split on the idea. Joe Guzzardi, an activist with a group called Progressives for Immigration Reform that favors immigration restrictions, opposes the idea of allowing the parents of U.S. citizens stay long-term.
“This is just going to be something that is going to give them, if not official permanent residency, then quasi-permanent residency," Guzzardi said.
Rosemary Jenks of Numbers USA, which also advocates cuts to legal immigration, said she didn't mind the proposal regarding parents because there are restrictions, such as no permission to work. But she opposes other aspects of the Senate proposal, including a provision that would grandfather in relatives of U.S. citizens and legal residents who have already been sponsored for immigration and are waiting in line for family-based entry.
"There is no right for anyone outside the United States who is a non-citizen to come into the United States," Jenks said. "It is a privilege that we grant, and we have the right as a sovereign nation to cut it off."
An estimated 3.9 million people are in line to enter the U.S. legally, a wait that for some can last two decades.
Immigrant advocates have opposed the idea of cutbacks to the family-based system, which has been in place since the 1960s. They argue that family networks of siblings and parents help care for children and start businesses, and support each other once here.
"We value families being together not only because it's important for our communities, and it's important for families to be together, but it is also a critical way for immigrants to integrate," said Reshma Shamasunder with Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles.
The Senate debate is expected to last for several days, although the real battle over immigration may occur in the House. Conservatives there could prevent passage of any proposal that would add to the numbers of legal immigrants, including the president's idea of allowing a path to citizenship for the those brought into the country illegally when they were children.