Question for the Next President: How Long Should Immigrant Families Be Apart?


This is the third article in a four part series.

Whichever candidate wins the election, the next president needs to confront the impact our immigration laws have on families. Here I am not talking about the depressing round-ups of undocumented immigrants, but about the prolonged separations of spouses from one another and of parents from their children.

We have an immigration system that virtually requires that many families that include a non-citizen wait years before they can be together here in the United States. Take the example of a man who is a member of my parish here in Westbury. He is a permanent resident who married his childhood sweetheart in El Salvador and then had to wait two-and-a-half years for her to come to the United States. The wait was not because of any inefficiency at the Immigration Service, it was because the immigration laws build in long waits. This is a structural legal problem, not a “we need to hire better people” problem.

The waits are even longer for other categories of family based immigrants. If a U.S. citizen wants to apply for her married 20 year-old daughter, she can expect to wait 10 years. A citizen applying for his Mexican brother should expect a sixteen year delay before the brother can come here.

The impact of these delays should be obvious. Children of Permanent Residents grow up in the home countries separated from their parents’ care and often feeling abandoned even though the parent is doing everything possible to reunite. As for spouses, just imagine what would happen to your own marriage if you were not together with your husband or wife for two-and-a-half years. Reunited spouses feel like strangers. They often feel they have missed out on a crucial early bonding experience in their relationship. In addition, separation sometimes fuels infidelity and lays the groundwork for the ultimate breakup of the family.

To avoid divided families, some spouses join the flow of undocumented immigrants. In doing so, they make it unlikely that they will later get a green card.

Same-sex spouses do not have to worry about delays. Even though their marriages may have been legally entered into in the United States, the immigration law forbids their reunion.

Solving the problem of family separation will not be simple and it will require real policy choices that may be unpopular, but it is doable and it has to be addressed.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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