For almost six years, Tony and Dina Lazar have been living for the day when they would be reunited with two of their children still in Manila.
The Philippine couple sponsored their daughter, Naomi, 32, and son, Antonio, 27, soon after they immigrated to Los Angeles in 1989.
“It’s been our dream to have our family in one place,” Lazar said. “We wanted so much for our children to experience America.”
Now, however, the Lazars, of North Hills, worry that their hopes may vanish in the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment.
They also fear that if the Immigration in the National Interests Act, proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) is adopted, their six-year wait will have been in vain.
Smith’s bill would set an annual cap of 330,000 on immigrants sponsored by family members already legally in this country and eliminate visa eligibility for sisters, brothers and adult children of U.S. citizens as well as children of immigrants who hold green cards, such as the Lazars. It would also restrict work-based immigration to 135,000 and set a ceiling on refugees and those seeking asylum at 70,000.
“Our family will be separated forever,” said Tony Lazar, 62, his voice choking.
“I pray to God that will not happen,” said his wife, Dina, 58.
Immigration specialists say Asians will be hardest hit. Of 2.4 million people worldwide waiting to emigrate, 1.3 million are from Asia, according to the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium in Washington.
And among Asians, Filipinos would be hurt the most because there are more Philippine applicants on the waiting list than any other group. Philippine veterans who fought in the U.S. armed forces during World War II are eligible for citizenship and once in this country, could sponsor other family members.
The legislation is an “attack on the Philippine community and family values,” said Emma Ballesteros, president of the Philippine American Bar Assn. in Los Angeles.
Proponents of the measure, including Smith, however, say the legislation would better serve the U.S. national interest. They also emphasize that it is similar to recent recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.
During a June hearing before the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration chaired by Smith, supporters expressed concerns about the number of immigrants entering the country.
“The United States welfare system is rapidly becoming a deluxe retirement home for the elderly of other countries,” Robert Rector, an analyst with the Washington-based conservative Heritage Foundation, told the committee.
“Whenever the American economy has a choice between increasing employment opportunity for the African American work force or giving those opportunities to more recent immigrants, they always choose the immigrants,” Frank L. Morris Sr., a professor at predominantly black Morgan State University in Baltimore, told the committee.
The current law permits citizens over age 21 to sponsor spouses, parents, siblings and children, both single and married. Lawful permanent residents, such as the Lazars, also can sponsor relatives, including their children.
The story of the Lazar family’s incomplete journey to America begins in 1977, when a relative in Los Angeles sponsored them.
Tony and Dina Lazar still recall vividly when the couple and two daughters and three sons, dressed in their Sunday best, went to the American Embassy in Manila in October, 1989.
“We were excited and happy at the prospect of finally going to America,” Tony Lazar recalled. The Lazars believed their children would have opportunities in America that could not be matched at home.
But their joy quickly turned to sadness when embassy officials said only the couple’s two minor children could accompany them.
The three older ones had become adults while they were waiting for the visa, which they had applied for almost 13 years earlier.
“It broke my heart,” said Tony Lazar. “We were already at the counter when they said my boy [Antonio] can’t go with us. It was his 21st birthday.”
Lazar pleaded with the American consul to make an exception for Antonio, he said. The official advised the Lazars to file papers for Antonio and Naomi when they got to the United States.
“I cried so much at the American Embassy,” said Dina Lazar. “I felt like I was being told to leave a part of me behind.”
Antonio went on to become an engineer and Naomi a civil servant. A second son, Allan, obtained a work visa by joining the U.S. Navy.
The couple eventually came to Los Angeles with daughter Nermi and son Archie, making arrangements for the older ones to stay with relatives.
As soon as the Lazars found work--he with an Asian community organization in Los Angeles and she at a retirement home in Hollywood--they filed papers to bring Antonio and Naomi.
They are among about 500,000 Filipinos waiting to come to the United States.
Between 1980 and 1990, the Philippines led all Asian countries, with 495,271 people immigrating to the United States.
Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, says the impact of the proposed legislation would be “devastating” to the nation’s Asian American communities, reducing immigration from Asia to a trickle.
“It’s no secret that the history of this country’s immigration laws has been fraught with racial bias,” Narasaki said.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers, “epitomizes” America’s blemished record on immigration from Asia, she said.
Until 1965 when the laws were changed, the annual quota for the Philippines was 100, according to consortium statistics.
The 1965 law, which eliminated the previously legalized discrimination against immigrants from Asia, is what caused the phenomenal growth of the nation’s Asian community from 1 million in the early 1960s to more than 8 million today.
Filipinos comprise a significant share of California’s Asian population. The Philippines and the United States have a special relationship because the islands were U.S. territory after the Spanish-American War. The islands remained under U.S. control until 1946 .
“We were told and believed that America is a wonderful country,” said Tony Lazar. “So I wanted my children to have a chance to live here.”
Dina Lazar said she wants her daughter and son to experience America so much that “if it were possible, my husband and I would trade places with them.”’