My sister is my nuclear family

Jen Smyers | March 27, 2013

My sisters are my nuclear family. No questions asked. Photo: Jen Smyers/CWS

My sisters are my nuclear family. No questions asked. Photo: Jen Smyers/CWS

This year has seen exciting momentum toward immigration reform, with key leaders on both sides of the aisle supporting a path to citizenship for the 11 million men, women and children who are undocumented in the United States. All of us are eager to see the bipartisan group of eight Senators introduce immigration reform legislation shortly after the Easter recess.

What hasn’t gotten much attention, but is just as critical as the path to citizenship, is family unity. Family is the strongest institution through which we grow, nourish one another and contribute to our broader communities. Children should not be without parents. Spouses should not be separated. Sisters and brothers should not be torn apart.  However, these scenarios are precisely what some are proposing be part of immigration reform.

The family-based visa system is already very restrictive. Currently, U.S. citizens are permitted to sponsor their spouse, minor children, adult children, parents and siblings. Green card holders are only permitted to sponsor their spouse, minor children and unmarried adult children. Waits for family visas can be as long as 24 years.

Just last week, various news sources reported that the bipartisan ‘gang of 8’ Senators are discussing ways to eliminate certain family-based visa categories – siblings and adult children in particular. Those proposing such anti-family policies claim that visas should only be available to “nuclear” family members – as though siblings and adult children are not part of the nuclear family.

I have two sisters, Rose and Lindsay. Let me be very clear: my sisters are my nuclear family. We grew up together, and as adults we continue to learn from one another, endure trials together, laugh and cry together. The idea that my sisters are somehow not my family is appalling. I cannot even fathom what I would do, or who I would be, if I were permanently separated from them by an arbitrary immigration policy. How are sisters, brothers, and children – of any age – not considered nuclear family members?

Unfortunately, these proposals are not new. In the 2007 immigration reform debate, Senators would have replaced the family-based immigration system altogether with a new ‘point system’ that would devalue familial relationships in favor of individuals with high skills or educational levels. Many faith groups, including the United Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Jewish groups opposed that immigration reform bill, in large part due to the damage it would have wrecked on family unity.

During Holy Week, let us remember Mary and Martha, sisters who grew spiritually together; disciples James and John, and Simon Peter and Andrew, brothers who together joined Jesus in his ministry; Joseph and his brothers, whose reunification taught them forgiveness and humility. And the strong relationships between parents and their adult children – including Abraham and Isaac, whose bond strengthened through trials; and, perhaps most relevant to this current season, mother Mary, who knelt and wept beside Jesus as he was crucified on the cross. Just as Rose and Lindsay are my nuclear family, these family relationships have worth and must be honored.

Immigration reform must strengthen family unity. It cannot make it harder than it already is for families to be reunited. As people of faith, we must ensure that our Senators hear us, through phone calls, letters, visits, letters to the editor and opinion editorials, and other creative ways to oppose these anti-family proposals and lift up the need for true immigration reform that prioritizes family unity. For talking points and additional information on how you can make a difference, go

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