Immigration Reform 2013: The Hawaii Immigration Problem


Aloha. At the very core of this traditional Hawaiian greeting is the notion of welcoming. The Hawaii Coalition for Immigration Reform, in their position statement, says "The long tradition of the Islands of Hawaii established by our Hawaiian forerunners is to welcome people to our shores. At its very core Aloha means to embrace the newcomer."

Yet Hawaii, nearly 2,390 miles from California, is rife with immigration problems. The problems have a different face than the ubiquitous Latino face we see in California; the face is mostly Asian. And the problems are laser focused on family issues, despite Congress’ near flawless inability to move legislation on anything not employment or enforcement related. 


Source: NCSL Immigrant Policy Project, 2011.

Indeed, according to state level data, aggregated nationally, 865 laws and resolutions were proposed in the first quarter of 2012 with 244 being employment or enforcement based, the only areas of policy areas to top the 100+ proposed mark, with public benefits a close third. This perennially binary view of immigration reform puts business interests, corporate interests, and right wing fear mongering interests, squarely above the interests of families. So then, what about what people really need?

Senator Hirono recently chaired a hearing on Women and Families, which I also covered.  In her opening statement she said, "I know first-hand that immigration is a women’s issue and a family issue. It’s from my own experience as an immigrant that I believe immigration reform should make the family immigration system stronger, not weaker. And we should not ignore the challenges immigrant women face." Huzzah, Senator Hirono, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

The family immigration issue, the challenge facing immigrant women, is family reunification, first and foremost. What is family reunification? The Migration Information Source tells us that family reunification, in terms of immigration, is the process of reuniting families who have become separated due to migrant travels. For instance, a mother who left Japan for the United States petitioning to have her kids reunited with her once she gains legal status.

Two-thirds of all immigration yearly is a direct result of family reunification petitions, and it "is the largest of four major avenues through which individuals qualify for admission and ‘lawful permanent residence’ in the US." The foreign born non-citizens population in Hawaii as of 2011 was 108,633 persons, a 28.3% increase from 2000. Immigration is also complicated by the United State’s implementation of the Compact of Free Association between the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau, and which was renewed in 2003 for another 20 years. How does this all play out on the ground in Hawaii? 


I spoke with Mr. Stan Bain, a former pastor and a founding member of FACE (Faith Action for Community Equity), a proud partner of Gamaliel, who is sincere in his belief that comprehensive immigration reform needs to be enacted with a focus on family issues, family reunification specifically.

He shared stories with me of the harassment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents against Asian and Latino folks, simply for looking like they were foreign (sound familiar, Arizona?). He told about young people parents arrested in front of their children, marched up and down in in shackles before being found to be legally documented peoples and released. He told me of the Hispanic folks being tracked by ICE in concert with local police, a la 287(G). Indeed, Oahu became the first community "to benefit from a new information-sharing capability that modernizes the process used to accurately identify criminal aliens in the community," a problematic strategy knows as Secure Communities.

Bain also told me about former Senators Inouye (deceased) and Akaka (retired) working with Senators Durbin and Schumer on early comprehensive reform legislation efforts to ensure family reunification was restored. And he told me about Senator Hirono’s efforts to reunite Filipino World War II veterans with their families because, while they were granted citizenship for their service to our nation, their children were not. And the line for reunification petitions stretches a good 20 years, depending on your nation of origin. If the senators from Hawaii have anything to say about it, it looks like families will be fought for in the highest offices of the land. If FACE has anything to say about it, the people of awai'i will be looked out for. 

It needs to be said, over and over until Congress gets it, comprehensive immigration reform is on its way. It needs to have a focus on families, on students, on the very real lives affected every day, and on the family members whiling away their days waiting for a chance to see their loved ones again.