Immigration: Family Reunification vs. Point System

The debate continues over the merit of proposed immigration legislation as Congress prepares to vote on the bill. There is disagreement over the proposal's plan to change the way immigrant families are allowed into the United States. Law professor Bill Hing and activist Lupe Moreno share their views.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It has to be one of the most emotional issues facing the country, the question of which of the nation's millions of immigrants and would-be immigrants are welcomed here. The Senate and the White House agreed in principle on a new policy last month only to watch it face a buzz saw of criticism from people on both ends of the political spectrum.

A key sticking point, a decision to change the priority for immigration from so-called family reunification, favoring those with existing family ties, to a point system that would reward those with education and language skills. It's a debate that literally hits home for many Americans, especially those descended from immigrants.

Joining us now to talk about this are Bill Hing, a law professor in California. He joins us from KQED in San Francisco. And Lupe Moreno, president of Latino-Americans for Immigration Reform. She joins us from her home in Santa Ana, California.

Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. LUPE MORENO (President, Latino-Americans for Immigration Reform): Thank you for having me.

Professor BILL HING (Law and Asian American Studies, University of California Davis): Hello.

MARTIN: Bill, you wrote a piece on your blog calling this the Asian and Latino Exclusion Act of 2007. Why do you call it that?

Prof. HING: Well, because the impact of the shift to a point system away from family will fall most heavily on Asian and Latino immigrants to the United States. Right now, the vast majority of immigrants to the United States come in family-based immigration categories, which has been the benchmark of immigration policy for decades. By shifting away from that and eliminating categories for parents, for adult children, for siblings, it preys most heavily on the Latin and Asian immigrants who have been coming in and helping to build the country for decades through family immigration categories.

MARTIN: Lupe, you are a child of immigrants. Your father came from Mexico. You don't have a problem with changing the priority?

Ms. MORENO: I don't have a problem with it at all. I think every person that comes into the country should come in with their own merit. If they want to bring their families, then their families should stand in line just like that one immigrant that stood in line. And if the other ones don't qualify, then they shouldn't be able to qualify to come in just because they are family.

MARTIN: What about Bill's point that there seems to be, in his view, this seems to be aimed at a particular group of people who just happen to be people of Latin American descent and Asian descent?

Ms. MORENO: Well, I don't think so. I absolutely don't think so because besides what is going on with this bill, we actually have more than one million people coming into the country in different ways. And you know what? My community is very diverse. We have Asian, Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hmong, Cambodian. And so they came in a certain way and I think there are different ways that they could come in. I don't want them coming in just because they have family.

MARTIN: Bill, why doesn't a sovereign nation have a right to decide to whom it wants to grant citizenship? And if it decides through whatever mechanism, especially a democratic one, that it prefers to choose people or to prioritize people who are educated and speak the national language, why can't it?

Prof. HING: A nation can do that. I'm not disputing that any sovereign nation has the ability to make those kinds of decisions. What I'm disputing is the language that's used, that somehow family immigrants don't have merit. Let's get one thing straight about family immigrants. They all have to satisfy the public charge ground of exclusion, and the way they satisfy that is they all generally come here and work. And they are filling job categories from construction to - not just agriculture but to industry. They are starting small businesses. They're the ones who come here with a dream in their heart and the ability to make something out of their lives. None of them are deadbeats. That's what the problem with this merit-based language is. Merit-based…

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Bill. You just don't have a problem with the language. You have a problem with the policy.

Prof. HING: That's right, because part of the policy is driven by this elitist category of favoring people with certain language abilities, but also higher education. And you would think, wow, well, we should encourage people to come here with higher education. The problem with that is that there is no connection between who will come in under the point system and whether or not, in fact, we need those workers. If you take Canada's point system, there are many stories of Ph.D.s who got into Canada with a point-based system who are driving cabs because there's no connection between…

Ms. MORENO: Well, this - (unintelligible) that have those…

Prof. HING: …their degrees and the jobs that they can now hold.

MARTIN: Lupe?

Ms. MORENO: …those high points then they shouldn't be let in. If we do not need those workers, then why let them in at all. We do need people that want and know our language before they get here. Right now in California, we are not only paying for interpreters to go to private hospitals and doctors, it's the law now that they need interpreters. So we as taxpayers are paying for those interpreters. And if they get into trouble and need assistance in the court, they have to have interpreters, which we're paying like $50 an hour or more for each person that needs interpreters.

MARTIN: Bill, what about Lupe's point that if people are driving cabs then maybe there's a mismatch between their skills and the needs of the country and it just needs to be readjusted, but it's not a matter of the policy to begin with. What do you say?

Prof. HING: Well, that's the problem is that who's going to develop that policy, the federal government? They're going to be the ones that decide where our needs are. The government over and over again screws that kind of judgment up. We should be leaving this in the hands of employers when it comes to merit.

MARTIN: What about the point that Lupe made earlier, which is that there are social costs to bringing people to the country who don't have certain minimum skills, including language, and that those costs should be recognized, that society has a right to decide that it doesn't chose to pay those costs? What do you say about that?

Prof. HING: As I said, society has a right to make whatever decisions it wants through its federal government. But the problem is how do we define cost. For generations we've allowed people in who don't speak English. But guess what, they come here and learn, and certainly their children do and they become contributors. Nobody disputes that.

And in terms of the actual taxpayers cost that was alluded to, we can't forget that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are taxpayers. And every single study that has looked at the tax contributions of immigrants documented and undocumented have all verified that they put more into the system than they ever take back in benefits…

MARTIN: Are you saying…

Prof. HING: …including schools.

MARTIN: Bill, at the end of the day, are you making a moral argument or an economic argument?

Prof. HING: Oh, I can make both. I think that we ought to do the right thing and recognize that families are valued and that they give us so much in terms of benefits at home, but also outside in industry. But economically, it's crazy because immigrants put in much more than they take out. They're taxpayers.

Ms. MORENO: I disagree.

Prof. HING: They're consumers. They create jobs by their consumption. They are every bit a part of the economic fabric of the country. So I believe that on both fronts, economically and socially, we benefit greatly from immigrants.

MARTIN: Lupe?

Ms. MORENO: Well, I believe that families are the greatest thing in the world, but we have to worry about our families. We have a moral obligation to the citizens of this nation to take care of our citizens. And right now in California, we are actually putting our citizens to one side to help the illegal immigrant community, plus also the legal community that comes in and does not know English.

We are actually having ballots in all kinds of languages. I think it's up to six or seven at this point, when they are supposed to know English to become an American, but they are asking for ballots in different languages.

MARTIN: Well so, Lupe, let me ask you the same argument I asked Bill Hing, which is: Is your primary issue here one that you think it's destructive of the fabric of society to have many people here who don't speak the national language at least initially, or is your main concern economic, that it's drain on society's resources?

Ms. MORENO: It's both at this point. I work for social services. I could see what the immigrant community has done. We are putting Americans to one side to be able to help these people. Well, you know, we need to help our people first. We need to help Americans. And Americans, as you know, come in all sizes, different origins, and colors, and ethnic backgrounds. But we need to help Americans first, and we're not doing that.

MARTIN: What about the argument that family networks are the reason many immigrants succeed in this country? And that also family ties, strong family ties, are one of the gifts many immigrants bring to America. They show an example of how families can stick together and help each other. What about that?

Ms. MORENO: They could bring strong family ties, but Americans have strong family ties, too. We have very strong family ties, and we have to take care of our families.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, briefly, Lupe. The irony, of course, of this is that your father was an immigrant from Mexico. Was he legal when he came?

Ms. MORENO: My father came over during the Brasero program, which was founded during World War II. All the men had gone off to war and the United States needed help. And braso means arm, so they made an agreement with Mexico to send over temporary workers. Well, some of them didn't turn out to be so temporary. Over 50 percent of those temporary workers wound up staying, marrying American women and continued to stay. And that was my father.

MARTIN: So what lesson do you draw from your family story?

Ms. MORENO: What lessons did I draw?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. MORENO: My father was an illiterate man - he couldn't read or write. But he loves this nation. He taught me to love this nation. And even though he didn't know how to read or write, my dad spoke English.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. MORENO: And he abided by the laws of this nation, and that's what we need to do. And that's what the immigrants that are coming in need to do is abide by our laws, learn our language, learn our culture, love this nation, because we're all living here.

MARTIN: Okay. Bill Hing, what's your family story?

Prof. HING: Well, my parents were immigrants from China and they came in during the exclusionary period as merchants, which was one of the exceptions. But, you know, Lupe basically made my point. I think that the problem with shifting over to a point system is that it freezes out the sense of possibility.

Under the point system you've already arrived. You've earned you degree. It doesn't recognize how the world opens up for people when they arrive to the United States. How many unskilled migrants have come in our history whose children, grandchildren, great grandchildren became not only working class contributors to the economy but engineers, doctors, lawyers, chemists? Why would anyone want to foreclose that possibility by shutting off the family route? Why freeze the sense of possibility?

Ms. MORENO: Because we're overwhelmed, and we just cannot support all the people that are coming in.

MARTIN: We're going to leave you there. It's an important - and obviously a discussion which people are very passionate. And perhaps you both will come back and talk to us again as this legislation kind of moves down the line and we can talk about his some more.

Bill Hing is a law professor at the University of California at Davis. He joined us from KQED in San Francisco. Thank you, Bill.

Prof. HING: You're welcome.

MARTIN: And Lupe Moreno is president of Latino-Americans for Immigration Reform. She joined us from her home in Santa Ana, California. Lupe, thank you also for joining us.

Ms. MORENO: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, efforts to enforce immigration laws hit home.

Ms. JOCELINE LOPEZ (Senior student, Willmar High School): I knew that there were the people because they were wearing - it said police and it said ICE on the back. And I knew it was them, but then they didn't even show warrant. And my mom asked them what were they looking for, and they didn't answer, they just ignored her.

MARTIN: A personal story from teens on the frontlines of the immigration battle. That's coming up next on TELL ME MORE.

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