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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Location: Washington, DC



By Mr. KOHL (for himself and Mr. Kennedy):

S. 2496. A bill to expand the definition of immediate relative for purposes of the Immigration and Nationality Act; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Mr. KOHL. Mr. President, I rise today with Senator Kennedy to introduce the Family Reunification Act, a measure designed to remedy a regrettable injustice in our immigration laws. A minor oversight in the law has led to an unfortunate, and likely unintended, consequence. Parents of U.S. citizens are currently able to enter the country as legal permanent residents, but our laws do not permit their minor children to join them. Simply put, the Family Reunification Act will close this loophole by including the minor siblings of U.S. citizens in the legal definition of ``immediate relative.'' This legislation will ensure that our immigration laws can better accomplish one of the most important policy goals behind them--the goal of strengthening the family unit.

Congress took an important first step in promoting family reunification when it enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act. By qualifying as ``immediate relatives,'' this law currently offers parents, spouses and children of U.S. citizens the ability to obtain immigrant visas to enter the country legally.

We can all agree that this is good immigration policy. Unfortunately, a ``glitch'' in this law has undermined the effectiveness of the important principle of family reunification. Each year, a number of families--in Wisconsin and across the country--are finding that they cannot take full advantage of this family reunification provision.

Today, U.S. citizens often petition for their parents to be admitted to the United States as ``immediate relatives.'' As I have said, that is clearly allowed under current law. It is not always quite that simple, though. In a small number of cases, a problem arises because minor siblings of U.S. citizens do not qualify as an ``immediate relative'' under current law. So, a young man or woman can bring his parents into the country, but not his or her 5-year-old brother or sister. Because the parents are unable to leave a young child behind, the child is not the only family member who does not come to the United States. The parents--forced to choose between their children--are effectively prevented from coming as well. The result, then, is that we are unnecessarily keeping families apart by excluding minor siblings from the definition of immediate relative.

For example, one family in my home State of Wisconsin is truly a textbook example of what is wrong with this law. Effiong and Ekon Okon, both U.S. citizens by birth, requested that their parents, who were living in Nigeria, be admitted as ``immediate relatives.'' The law clearly allows for this. Their father, Leo, had already joined them in Wisconsin, and their mother, Grace, was in possession of a visa, ready to join the rest of her family. However, Grace was unable to join her husband and sons in the United States because their 6-year-old daughter, Daramfon, did not qualify as an ``immediate relative.'' Because it would be unthinkable for her to abandon her small child, Grace was forced to stay behind in Nigeria, separated from the rest of her family. That is not what this law was intended to accomplish.

It is difficult to determine the exact scope of this problem. Because minor siblings do not qualify for visas, the Department of Homeland Security, DHS, does not keep track of how many families have been adversely affected. What we do know, however, is that the cases in my home State are not unique. Though the number is admittedly not large, DHS has notified us that they run into this problem regularly, with the number reaching into the hundreds each year.

If only one family suffers because of this loophole, I would suggest that changes should be made. The fact that there have been numerous cases, probably in the hundreds, demands that we address this issue now, so we can avoid tearing even more families apart.

Many parts of our immigration laws are outdated and in need of repair. The definition of ``immediate relative'' is no different. Congress's intent when it granted ``immediate relatives'' the right to obtain immigrant visas was to promote family reunification, but the unfortunate oversight which Senator Kennedy and I have highlighted has interfered with many families' opportunity to do just that. The legislation introduced today would expand the definition of ``immediate relatives'' to include the minor siblings of U.S. citizens. By doing so, we can truly provide our fellow citizens with the ability to reunite with their family members. This is a simple and modest solution to an unthinkable problem that too many families have already had to face, so I urge my colleagues to support this important legislation.

I ask unanimous consent that the text of the legislation be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

S. 2496


By Mr. KOHL (for himself, Mr. Kennedy, and Mr. Durbin):

S. 2497. A bill to authorize the Attorney General to award grants to State courts to develop and implement State courts interpreter programs; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Mr. KOHL. Mr. President, I rise today, with Senator Kennedy and Senator Durbin, to introduce the State Court Interpreter Grant Program Act of 2006. This legislation would create a modest grant program to provide much needed financial assistance to States for developing and implementing effective State court interpreter programs, helping to ensure fair trials for individuals with limited English proficiency.

States are legally required, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to court proceedings for individuals with limited English proficiency. Currently, however, court interpreting services vary greatly by State. Some States have highly developed programs. Others are trying to get programs up and running, but lack adequate funds. Still others have no certification program at all. It is critical that we protect the constitutional right to a fair trial by adequately funding State court interpreter programs.

Our States are finding themselves in an impossible position. Qualified interpreters are in short supply because it is difficult to find individuals who are both bilingual and well-versed in legal terminology. The skills required of a court interpreter differ significantly from those required of other interpreters or translators. Legal English is a highly particularized area of the language, and requires special training. Although anyone with fluency in a foreign language could attempt to translate a court proceeding, the best interpreters are those that have been tested and certified as official court interpreters.

Making the problem worse, States continue to fall further behind as the number of Americans with limited English proficiency--and therefore the demand for court interpreter services--continues to grow. According to the most recent Census data, 18 percent of the population over age five speaks a language other than English at home. In 2000, the number of people in this country who spoke English less than ``very well'' was more than 21 million, approaching twice what the number was 10 years earlier. Illinois had more than 1 million. Texas had nearly 2.7 million. California had more than 6.2 million.

The shortage of qualified interpreters has become a national problem, and it has serious consequences. In Pennsylvania, a Committee established by the Supreme Court called the State's interpreter program ``backward'' and said that the lack of qualified interpreters ``undermines the ability of the ..... court system to determine facts accurately and to dispense justice fairly.'' When interpreters are unqualified, or untrained, mistakes are made. The result is that the fundamental right to due process is too often lost in translation. And, because the lawyers and judges are not interpreters, these mistakes often go unnoticed.

Some of the stories associated with this problem are simply unbelievable. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a husband accused of abusing his wife was asked to translate as his wife testified in court.

This legislation addresses this problem by authorizing $15 million per year, for the next five years, for a State Court Interpreter Grant Program. Those States that apply would be eligible for a $100,000 base grant allotment. In addition, $5 million would be set aside for States that demonstrate extraordinary need. The remainder of the money would be distributed on a formula basis, determined by the percentage of persons in that State over the age of five who speak a language other than English at home.

Some will undoubtedly question whether this modest amount can make a difference. It can, and my home State of Wisconsin is a testament to that. When Wisconsin's program got off the ground in 2004, using State money along with a $250,000 Federal grant, certified interpreters were scarce. Now, just two years later, it has 43 certified interpreters. Most of those are Spanish, where the greatest need exists. However, the State also has interpreters certified in sign language and Russian. The list of provisional interpreters--those who have received training and passed written tests--is much longer, including individuals trained in Arabic, Hmong, Korean, and other languages. All of this progress in only two years, and with only $250,000 of Federal assistance.

This legislation has the strong support of State court administrators and State supreme court justices around the country.

Our States face this difficult challenge, and Federal law requires them to meet it. Despite their noble efforts, many of them are failing. It is time we lend them a helping hand. This is an access issue, and no one should be denied justice or access to our courts merely because of a language barrier.

I ask unanimous consent that the text of the legislation be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

S. 2497


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