“The love, commitment, and support of family is a great gift that creates purpose for individuals, is central to our faith, and grounds the very structure of our society.”
-Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Mansholt, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
LIRS cares deeply about the unity of migrant families. As people of faith, we view family as the basic unit of strong communities and congregations. Unfortunately, thousands of families are separated for years through the red tape, bureaucracy and harsh enforcement tactics of our broken immigration system. Our advocacy focuses on several issues that affect family unity including visa availability and family separation within the United States.
Under the current immigration system, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are allowed to petition for family members abroad to join them in the United States. Wait times to receive a family visa range from a few months to more than 20 years.
LIRS’s family-based immigration FAQ document explains the reason for this backlog. For U.S. citizens, an unlimited number of visas are available for immediate family members. However, far fewer visas are available for other close relatives including unmarried adult children and siblings. For legal permanent residents, family visas are limited in all categories and by country of origin. Demand for family visas greatly exceeds the supply, creating severe backlogs.
Family Separation Within the United States
Many families in the United States have “mixed status.” For example, parents who are undocumented may have U.S. citizen children or an undocumented immigrant may be married to a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident. As a result, these families live in fear that the undocumented members of the family could be deported. Several recent actions by the Obama Administration, such as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and newly calibrated enforcement priorities, have provided some stability to some migrants without legal status. However, as with any Administrative policy, these changes are temporary and require permanent solutions through legislative action.
- Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced executive actions intended to resolve some of the broken components of our current immigration system. These changes are known collectively as the “Immigration Accountability Executive Actions.” One of these was the creation of deferred action for parents of U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs). Extending deferred action to these parents will provide protection from deportation and work authorization for three years for an estimated 4.1 million undocumented adults who:
- Have children of any age who are United States citizens or lawful permanent residents (LPRs)
- Have lived in the United States since January 1, 2010
- Pass a background check
- Pay an application fee of $465
LIRS gratefully welcomed and supported the President’s decision to extend deferred action to the parents of U.S. citizens and LPRs. Families living together without the constant fear of deportation are more stable and self-sufficient than those split apart or living in fear of forced separation due to one or more family member’s lack of valid immigration status. Without the stress of possible separation, these families can more fully focus on continued contributions to their communities and congregations. Those parents who did not formerly enjoy work authorization can now experience the pride and protections of providing for their families within the safeguards of our workforce.
This program currently cannot be implemented due to litigation brought forward by the State of Texas along with 25 other states against the Obama Administration that challenged the legality of the President’s actions. More information on the split Supreme Court ruling on this case can be found here.
- Immigration Enforcement Priorities
When the Department of Homeland Security conducts immigration enforcement actions, mixed status families are often separated as a result. Although prosecutorial discretion allows immigration officials to consider family ties in the United States when deciding to detain an immigrant or begin deportation proceedings, not all families are allowed to remain together.
Another key component of the Administration’s November 20, 2014 executive actions was the recalibration of DHS-wide Immigration Enforcement Priorities. Under this recalibration, the Department of Homeland Security will prioritize enforcement efforts to focus resources more fully on those individuals who actually pose a risk to the safety of our community and away from contributing members of our families, communities, and congregations. This guidance directs resources to national security, public safety, and border security threats. It also instructs immigration officials to consider positive equities, like familial relationships and ties to the community, in making enforcement decisions.
DHS will be required to exercise prosecutorial discretion broadly and at various points. Discretion should be utilized in decisions to
- initiate removal proceedings
- apprehend, detain, and release
- appeal immigration court rulings
- and decisions to effect a deportation
Unless they are subject to mandatory detention requirements under current immigration law, vulnerable individuals such as those who have serious physical or mental illness, are disabled, elderly, pregnant or nursing, or primary caretakers of children or those not in the public interest should not be placed in detention under these new priorities.
LIRS was encouraged by the Administration’s plans to tighten its enforcement priorities rather than seeking to detain and deport our friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors who are integral members of our communities. While it is too early to judge, if this latest effort to prioritize enforcement efforts is implemented broadly, fairly, and consistently, the government will save valuable resources and avoid the devastating consequences of detention and deportation for migrants and refugees who came to the United States seeking only protection, family unity, or a better future.
Family Separation by the Numbers
23 years, 6 months — Family visa wait time for Filipino siblings of U.S. citizens, the longest wait time for relatives of U.S. citizens (Department of State Visa Bulletin, July 2016)
12 years, 10 months — Average wait time for siblings of U.S. citizens
20 years, 10 months — Family visa wait time for unmarried adult children of legal permanent residents from Mexico, the longest wait time for relatives of legal permanent residents (Department of State Visa Bulletin, July 2016)
6 years, 7 months — Average wait time for unmarried adult children of legal permanent residents
4.5 million — Estimated number of U.S. citizen children who have families with mixed immigration status (Human Impact Partners, 2013)
72,410 — Number of parents of U.S. citizens who were deported in FY 2013 (ICE Report to Congress, April 2014)
46,686 — Number of children whose parents were deported in the first six months of FY 2011 (ICE Report to Congress, March 2012)
17 — Estimated number of children placed under state care each day in 2012 as a result of the detention or deportation of their parents (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Fact Sheet, 2012)
At least 5,100 — The number of children placed into foster care due to the deportation of one or both of their parents in FY 2011 (Applied Research Center, November 2011)
LIRS supports improving the family-based immigration system to ensure the timely reunification of families. LIRS also supports the consideration of family unity in enforcement activities. We are deeply concerned that the U.S. immigration system separates families. The Christian tradition and our own experience providing services to families nationwide supports the central role of family in the formation of faith, character, and community.
Current Legislation in the 114th Congress
Reintroduced by Representative Honda (D-CA), this bill works to reform our dysfunctional legal immigration system by enabling family members to reunite with their loved ones more quickly. Among other important reforms, this bill would reduce lengthy backlogs for spouses and children, recapture and distribute visas more equitably between countries, allow for flexibility when addressing family separation for undocumented immigrants, and strengthen protections for children and widows.
In addition to eliminating the per-country numerical limitation for employment-based immigrant visas, this legislation would also raise the per-country “caps” for family visas, eliminating painful separations for countless families.
Past Legislation Introduced in the 113th Congress
This legislation would provide sufficient visas to erase the current backlog of family visa applicants within seven years and reduces future wait times, allows spouses and children of LPRs under the current family-based system to petition as immediate relatives, allows parents joining a U.S. citizen child in the U.S. to bring their minor children with them, and allows immigration judges to consider the impact of an immigrant’s deportation on his or her U.S. citizen or LPR parents, spouse or children. However, the bill would end opportunities for U.S. citizens to petition for immigrant visas for their sisters, brothers and married children over the age of 31.
Reuniting Families Act of 2013
This legislation would reduce the time some family members must wait before being able to reunite with their loved ones, provide for faster reunification for spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents, and allow the government to ameliorate hardship faced by families who might otherwise be forced apart by the current restrictions in immigration laws.
This legislation would prohibit the termination of parental rights of parents who have been deported unless it is not in the child’s best interests to be in that parent’s custody. It also requires the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and State to consult with experts to develop guidance that takes into account the best interests of children whose parent or caregiver is detained, deported or removed. For more information see the Women’s Refugee Commission’s toolkit on immigration enforcement and parental rights.
- Frequently asked questions on family-based immigration
- LIRS Backgrounder on Family Separation at the Border
- LIRS Analysis of the Administration’s Immigration Accountability Executive Actions
- ELCA statement on family unity
How You Can Help