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Bipartisan Senate Bill Would Grant More Than One Million Visas Immediately

by Paul Donnelly

"Don't bury the lede." Every reporter who's ever covered a fire or a funeral knows to look for the important fact or the good story beneath the boring. In fact, my first editor told me to never, ever even think of starting a story with "the single most boring sentence in the history of journalism: A bill was introduced in the legislature today that would..." It doesn't matter HOW you finish it, he growled, because no one will read it.

Which is sometimes the point. Yesterday, the U.S. Senate's Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and the independent-minded Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraka, proposed a piece of legislation called "The Immigration Reform Act of 2004: Strengthening America: National Security, Economy, and Families," which received the bill number S.2010. Their press releases talked about national security issues, about "identifying undocumented immigrants living inside our borders and tracking foreign workers who enter the U.S. for jobs", funding for the Department of Homeland Security, " counterfeit-resistant authorization cards" and tough enforcement, e.g., those who break this law couldn't benefit from it. (sic)

Blandly, the release also said the legislation was about "Fixing the Current System… [it] would reduce the existing backlog of applications for family-sponsored visas to ensure that immigrants will be allowed to re-unite with their U.S. citizen and legal resident family members." The national press dutifully reported the Senators proposal, just as blandly.

The day after it was announced, when attention shifted elsewhere, I got a copy of the bill. "Section 102. Reclassification of Spouses and Minor Children of Legal Permanent Residents as Immediate Relatives."


The rest of the section goes on to add the immediate relatives of "legal permanent residents" to the sections of the INA which provide unlimited visas for the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens. As ILW.COM readers know (see "The Anti-Assimilation President" and "Strange No More"), not to mention the majority of immigration lawyers with small, family-oriented practices, the failure to do this for more than 14 years since it was first proposed is quite simply the cruelest, most egregious anti-marriage provision of American law.

So why wasn't that the headline of the press releases and the lede of the news stories? One might think that defending immigrant marriages and nuclear families, the propositions that the law should allow husbands and wives to sleep in the same country and that legal PERMANENT immigrants should be encouraged to raise their kids in their new country – our country -- would be a political winner, something politicians would want to be associated with. But you'd be wrong. Why?


A full legislative analysis for how S.2010 would affect the pierceable cap of the 1990 act will have to wait for later. But it is clear that treating the nuclear family petitions of legal permanent residents as an unlimited category the same as citizens would have a huge impact on the numbers of visas issued in the short run. The State Department has not issued a formal estimate of the 2A backlog since 1997, when it was 1.05 million, but their never-published 1999 analysis concluded that the prior estimate was low – possibly very low.

So the Daschle/Hagel legislation can be reasonably expected to provide for at least one million new immigration visas immediately, perhaps even twice that. Hearings will surely be held, and somebody, someplace, is going to have to testify about the backlogs.

That poses a fascinating political conundrum – and it recalls a missed opportunity. For this is not the first, nor even the second time legislation has been proposed to deliver visas to the nuclear families of legal permanent residents.

In 1990, language nearly identical to this Senate bill was passed by the House – but the usual crowd of immigration lobbyists simply yawned, and the provision was dropped in conference. No one anticipated that the 1990s and first few years of the 21st century would see immigrant families – mostly Mexican, overwhelmingly Catholic – outlawed and exiled in their hundreds of thousands by the U.S. Congress. But that's exactly what happened.

In 1996, Senators Feinstein and Boxer proposed an amendment on the Senate floor to provide visas to these husbands and wives, parents and little kids – but they lost by a lopsided margin. Instead, the Senate passed and prevailed on the House to accept the 3 and 10 year ban provision, which the Daschle/Hagel bill would repeal.

The political difficulty lies in the calculation that economics trump family values. That is why Bush has proposed a guest worker program, but NOT to treat immigrant marriages to be just as sacred as those of citizens. Presenting their bill as a matter of national security and a kinder, gentler guest worker program suggests that the Senators don't believe that defending marriage and family is powerful enough to overcome the facts: as introduced their legislation would grant more than one million visas immediately.

But – that is the fact. Without the candor to argue family values plainly, it may be difficult to get past the inevitable objections from restrictionists that the numbers are too high, and from the ostensible friends of family-based immigration that uniting husbands and wives, parents and kids isn't worth risking the sibling category, or numbers overall.

By putting this profoundly pro-family provision in their own guest worker bill, Daschle and Hagel have laid down a marker: you can't do this, Mr. President, if we don't also do that.

More power to them.

About The Author

Paul Donnelly writes about immigration and citizenship. He can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.