At CFR, No Clarity on Family Unification

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on July 8, 2009

As the Council on Foreign Relations rolled out its recommendations for immigration policy reform on Wednesday, a panel discussion covered ground that is familiar to advocates of the comprehensive reform proposals.

The CFR task force wants to combine calls for tough enforcement against illegal immigration with sweeping legalization of those who are already here. The panelists, who sat on the task force, said there was strong agreement that a demonstrated commitment to enforcement was essential to the effort to win support for “earned legalization.”

But while the task force was definitive on that pairing, its equivocated on another element of “comprehensive reform”—what to do about the issuance of visas to relatives of citizens and permanent residents. That issue has received far less attention in the current public discussion even though it became one of the most contentious issues in the 2007 Senate debate that ended in stalemate.

“It was strongly felt by a majority of the members of the committee that keeping families together and united is an important, critical point,’’ said Task Force Co-Chair Thomas F. McLarty III.

Richard D. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention moved past that comfortable generality to the heart of contention. “There was clearly some disagreement among task force members about how we define family,’’ he said.

The problem that faces policy makers is whether to keep the current broad entitlement to sponsor not only spouses, children and parents but also married siblings and their families. Under that system a large majority of the million or so green cards awarded every year are determined by family ties rather than education or ability.

That imbalance is a problem for the CFR, which wants the U.S. to become more aggressive in the international competition for talent.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times highlighted the problem in a 2006 column in which he noted that when he was reporting from China, “American diplomats complained that under the law they had to deny visas to brilliant physicists while granting immigrant visas to elementary-school dropouts who had a relative in Chicago.”

The CFT task force report offers no clarity on how to proceed, acknowledging that “there was no clear consensus” on what to do. That left a gaping hole in what the CFR press release called "concrete, realistic recommendations for legislation and administrative reforms that would be part of an immigration policy that better serves America's national interests."