Family Unity, Immigration Reform and the House of Representatives

Jen Smyers | February 7, 2013

Young people march for immigration reform at a rally in Washington, D.C. Photo: Carol Fouke

Young people march for immigration reform at a rally in Washington, D.C. Photo: Carol Fouke

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on immigration. Congressional hearings are usually pretty dull, but since immigration has been a topic of interest recently – especially with President Obama’s speech in Las Vegas last week and the Senate’s introduction of bi-partisan principles – this one was packed. The line to enter wrapped around the hallway – a site only seen when George Clooney or Angelina Jolie are present.

Despite Hollywood’s absence, everyone expected political theater.

Rep. Goodlatte (VA-6), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, kicked off the proceedings with a balance that I personally found surprising – saying “[this debate is] about real people with real problems trying to provide a better life for their families…. I think we can all agree that our nation’s immigration system is in desperate need of repair and it is not working as efficiently and fairly as it should be.”

From the get-go, the hearing’s unrelenting focus on border and interior enforcement shone a bright light on how little many of the committee members know about our immigration system. Last year alone, the U.S. spent more than $18 billion on immigration enforcement, more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined1, and yet our immigration system is only worse off, with record numbers of deportations and family separations.

Most outrageously, many committee members chose an odd target to unleash their anti-immigrant sentiment: separated families seeking to be reunited. Despite the fact that visa backlogs are as long as seven years for a spouse or minor child, and as long as 27 years for a U.S. citizen’s sister or brother2, some committee members apparently think too many families are together. After Goodlatte seemed keen to the idea of barring U.S. citizens from admitting their siblings or adult children, Rep. Lofgren (CA-16) retorted, “It is not my belief that my son and daughter are ‘chain migration’. My son and daughter are part of my nuclear family. And I think that’s true of Americans who have sons and daughters abroad.”

While we do need more employment visas, this should not, and does not have to, come at the cost of separating more families. Real immigration reform will provide a pathway to citizenship for aspiring Americans who are currently undocumented; reunite separated families; and increase visas for various sectors to meet today’s employment needs. And while it’s great to hear that many support a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers – undocumented youth – by making that distinction they’re ignoring the importance of the family members of those DREAMers – they deserve a path to citizenship as well.

The seven hours of the hearing remained enforcement-focused, but signaled that there might be some ability to move on immigration reform. Representative Raul Labrador (ID-1) said at one point, “I think there’s goodwill…to come together, have a pragmatic solution, and solve and modernize the immigration system for years to come.” Judging from this hearing, it seems that a House immigration bill may not lead to citizenship, but to some other sort of legal status for those who are undocumented. In response to such a plan, Mayor Castro responded powerfully, “I believe that a pathway to full citizenship is in the nation’s best interest and what the Congress ought to enact.”

As people of faith committed to welcoming the stranger, we need to urge our Senators and Representatives to enact immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship and prioritizes family unity. These House members especially need to hear that citizenship is important – we cannot settle for a pathway to some permanent second class status.

Learn more about how you can get involved in neighbor-to-neighbor local congressional visits, family unity prayer vigils, and lifting up your voice in your local newspaper at

Read CWS’s statement on the hearing here. To stay updated on immigration reform actions, sign up for CWS Speak Out alerts here.

By Jen Smyers, Associate Director for Immigration and Refugee Policy, CWS

1 Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery. The Migration Policy Institute.

2 U.S. Department of State. Visa Bulletin, January 2013.