NEW YORK (AP) — Yaritza Mendez is an American citizen thanks to an immigration system that has been built around family connections for more than 50 years.
Since 1965, immigrants-turned-American citizens can serve as sponsors to their parents, children and siblings and help them become legal residents and then U.S. citizens. It's a system that allowed Mendez's grandmother to bring her son to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic about a decade ago, which in turn allowed him to sponsor her.
The family-based immigration system would be completely upended by proposed legislation that got an endorsement from President Donald Trump on Wednesday. The proposal would drastically reduce who's eligible for family visas and cut overall immigration by 50 percent within 10 years, giving a preference to English speakers, educated immigrants, high-wage earners and others.
The bill from Republican Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas has little chance of getting anywhere, with Democrats dismissing it and even fellow GOP legislators showing little interest in any kind of immigration action. Opponents are decrying it as an attack on immigrants and on legal immigration itself, one that has echoes throughout American history.
"I do contribute to this country as much as a born American," said Mendez, who works as an organizer at Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy organization. "I do pay my taxes on time. I work and I go out and vote. I should have, and do deserve, the right to be with my mom."
The current system was enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. Before that, the U.S. had quotas that allowed a set number of people from certain countries, like those in Europe, to come but essentially barred people from other parts of the world.
The change was backed by the American families of European immigrants who wanted to bring over their relatives.
Congress decided to do away with the country-of-origin system in favor of one where visas were divided between all nations, but with preference going to those people with family ties to U.S. citizens. At the time, many assumed the change would continue to mainly benefit European immigrants.
But immigrants from Asia and Latin America used the family categories to bring over their relatives, creating a more diverse nation over time.
"Asian-Americans in particular upended it and transformed who we are as a people here in the United States, made it a far more diverse place and that wasn't the goal," UCLA history professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez.
The law marked a dramatic reversal from earlier immigration acts that Lytle Hernandez said helped "construct the nation as a European immigrant, white nation."
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred workers from that country from coming here. A 1924 immigration law barred people from whole parts of the globe, like Asia, from entering. European immigrants were allowed in, in small numbers and with emphasis on those from Northern Europe.
Trump's supporters praise the cuts and believe the emphasis on a skills-based immigration system will improve the economy.
Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which supports the legislation, welcomed both cuts to the numbers of people allowed into the country and focusing on what an immigrant would bring to the U.S. as a determining factor of whether they are allowed to come.
"It should be, 'who do we need,'" he said.
Asked about the hardship that naturalized citizens would face if they were no longer allowed to bring in parents, adult children and siblings, Beck said there were ways, like technology, to stay in touch despite distance.
Mendez said implementing a system like that would be akin to creating second-class status for naturalized citizens like herself. Now that she is a citizen, she hopes to serve as a sponsor for her mother to allow her to become an American.
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