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Why family-based immigration has become a sticking point in the national debate

News that first lady Melania Trump's parents have obtained green cards raises questions about whether their legal permanent residency here benefitted from the very set of immigration laws that President Trump wants to eliminate. Lisa Desjardins talks with John C. Yang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Art Arthur from the Center for Immigration Studies about family-based immigration.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Various news media outlets reported this week that first lady Melania Trump's parents, who, like her, are from Slovenia, have obtained green cards, allowing them to live in the U.S.

    That raises questions about whether their legal permanent residency came about thanks to the very set of immigration laws that Mr. Trump wants to eliminate. And that system, known as family-based immigration, has become a key sticking point in negotiations on immigration reform.

    Lisa Desjardins takes a closer look at the policy now under consideration.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, for a closer look at family-based immigration, and how it compares to the president's preferred merit-based system, I'm joined by Art Arthur.

    He served for eight years as an immigration judge at the York Immigration Court in York, Pennsylvania. He is now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for stricter immigration laws. And John C. Yang of the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an advocacy group dealing with civil rights and immigration issues — not related to our John Yang, by the way.

    Thank you both for joining us.

    And let me start with you, John.

    First of all, the U.S. family-based immigration, let's talk about how this works. If you were to have a green card in this country, you are able to bring your spouse and unmarried children right now under U.S. law. And if you're a U.S. citizen, you can petition, in addition to that, your parents, any married children you have and your siblings.

    This has been in place for many decades and it's resulted in a system that the U.S. has more family-based migration than any country in the world. Why is that, and how does that shape this country?

  • John C. Yang:

    That's correct.

    And it's a very misunderstood part of our law. We have had this system in place for the last 50 years, and it's really shaped our country in allowing this country to have much greater diversity, much greater dynamism in terms of the people that are coming here with new ideas, a real work ethic.

    And one the things that I think is important to remember and just dispel is what it is and what it is not, because, oftentimes, people talk about what we consider an offensive term, chain migration. We think it's offensive and dehumanizing.

    And what they're trying to say is that there is, like, an unlimited number of people that can come to the United States. But, as you suggested, that's not the case. We're not talking cousins, aunts and uncles that are coming to the country. We are really talking immediate relatives, people that are core to that nation of family.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Art Arthur, you heard John Yang say he thinks this is a way that the country gets more diversity, more different ideas and talents.

    But you think you this is something that should be very sharply limited. Why?

  • Art Arthur:


    And I would disagree with the idea that it brings more diversity to the United States, because the fact is, you are getting the relatives of individuals who have — who are already here. So you're just getting the same flow of individuals.

    In the last 10 years, 70 percent of all immigration to the United States has been family-based. And there is no pejorative term when it comes to chain migration. It's been used since 1966. And, in fact, it's a common parlance in immigration.

    The idea of bringing — of deciding who should become a United States citizen, who should get to stay here permanently, based upon family relationships, rather than based upon skills, is an idea that's been discredited for a long time.

    Barbara Jordan, we celebrated her birthday yesterday, she passed away two decades ago, but she herself said that, absent a compelling national interest, immigration should be based on skills.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I'm going to come back to what — how would you define merit-based.

    But I'm going to ask you, John, you mentioned a statistic. Right now, about 72 percent of people who come to this country legally come through family connection. Does that not limit people who don't have a family connection, but have something to offer? Is this closing a door to some perhaps skilled workers, as Art is ash arguing?

  • John C. Yang:

    Absolutely not, because we do have different programs for skilled workers. We have different programs for people that are bringing a new business to the United States.

    We obviously have refugee programs, asylum programs to help bring a full mix to the country. And when we're talking about what constitutes merit-based, that's a place that certainly we need to have a discussion, because, for us, the notion that family is not merit, that there's no merit to having a parent over that will help take care of your kids when you are running a business, runs afoul of what we as Americans have typically valued.

    I mean, if this notion of merit should be that you bring certain skills to the country, you bring certain connections or you bring certain wealth, that's not how this country was founded.

    If you look at some of the iconic American brands, like Levi Strauss, he came with nothing in his pockets, so to speak, but he came because he had a brother or a sister that was already here, came to the country and built a wonderful brand.

    That's certainly also the case with a number of other companies here in the United States.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, what about that argument?

    John is sort of arguing that the desire in of itself to come to America shows that you are someone who might have innovation in your blood. How would you define a merit-based system? And how would you do it in a way — often, I see these countries like Canada, they use English proficiency or education.

    How would you do that in a way that doesn't limit lower-income countries and doesn't sort of self-select for certain groups of people?

  • Art Arthur:

    Well, the good thing about merit-based immigration is that you don't have to worry about certain countries.

    The fact is, the skills and abilities are spread around the world. You know, it can be the Bangladeshi engineer. It can be the Nigerian doctor that comes to the United States. We want to bring people to the United States who are not only going to be able to support themselves, but also contribute to the American economy and grow our economy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So, what criteria are we talking about?

  • Art Arthur:

    We're talking about people who have job offers that pay above the median wage. We're talking about people who have education, people who have shown an attachment to our core principles and values.

    As Barbara Jordan herself said, we are talking about people who are able to not only support themselves and their families, but to also help to grow the American economy and help the Americans who are already here, both citizens and lawful permanent residents.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And we have a history in immigration debates, though, that race comes up. How to you make sure that this isn't a system that is based on racial preferences?

  • Art Arthur:

    It's the best part about it. It is completely race-blind? It's based purely on merit.

    No one cares what you look like. No one cares where you're from. People care what you can contribute to the American economy when you move to a skills-based system.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I want to ask you both of just quickly, in summary, what do you think is at stake in this debate about family migration?


  • John C. Yang:

    Well, I think two things.

    One is, let's be clear. When we're talking about merit-based immigration, what Art is talking about and the proposals that are out there actually reduce immigration by over 50 percent. So, there's a hit to our economy on that.

    And number two is, I would suggest that merit extends far more to people that have over the median income, rather people that have parents that come over to help support small businesses must be part of the equation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You want to limit immigration in general.

  • Art Arthur:

    Well, the fact is that most of the people who come to the United States right now are competing against our most vulnerable members of society, the individuals who don't have the educational advantages and who don't have the work experience that a lot of other people do.

    So, by bringing in more skilled individuals who can help to grow jobs and grow the economy, we will provide jobs for the folks who are here, again, not just American citizens, but lawful permanent residents and aliens who have already come to the country.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A very important debate. Thank you for having a conversation about it with us.

    John Yang, Art Arthur, thank you.

  • John C. Yang:

    Thank you.

  • Art Arthur:

    Thank you so much.

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