Retired and in their 70s, Ru-Liang Zhang and Xan-Xia Hong spend every weekday after lunch socializing at the Chinese Community Center, a few short blocks from their Delancey Street home in lower Manhattan. Inseparable and competitive, they battle in ping-pong, magnetic darts, karaoke, and occasionally practice the erhu, an ancient two-stringed bowed instrument.
Twenty-eight years after moving to the U.S. through family-immigrant visas, the two say they are living the best time of their lives. Their kids are financially independent, and their social benefits are stable. Still, they’ve never forgotten how difficult it was to get here.
“For the journey, for our whole family, it cost us over 10,000 Chinese Yuan (roughly $2,000 in 1990 U.S. dollars),” Hong said. “What were we to do if we couldn’t get the visa? We would lose everything.”
Lacking formal employment and supported financially by an older brother, the couple poured their dreams and savings into a visa application process that would take nine years. In the decade that followed, Hong worked seven days a week at a garment factory, while Zhang put in similar hours at a restaurant, eventually inheriting a convenience store.
Combined, their work ethic helped put their three kids through college. But they sometimes wonder if those accomplishments might go unnoticed today, as the Trump administration blames so-called chain immigration for bringing in people who do not contribute to the U.S. economy.
The president used a contentious term on Twitter last September, one the White House and anti-immigration advocates have adopted in reference to U.S. citizen-sponsored immigrant visas for family members abroad.
No new laws … yet
A year and a half into Trump’s presidency, his administration has backed several legislative measures that would cut legal immigration, including family-based immigrant visas, while replacing so-called low-skilled immigrant labor with what it refers to as a merit-based system.
Proponents argue a policy change would lead to better wages for American workers; critics say the economy is dependent on low-skilled labor.
WATCH: Longtime Immigrants Fear Family-Based Visa in Doubt After Years of Hard Work
Justin Yu, a former immigration-specialized reporter who now runs the New York Chinese Community Center, calls family-based immigration vital for the well-being of U.S.-based families, and he believes the president should focus his immigration reform efforts elsewhere.
“The problem in the American immigration system is not the legal immigrant — it’s not the family-based immigrant, it’s not the merit-based immigrant,” Yu told VOA. “The problem … is our border has not been controlled, and that we have too many illegals, and we don’t know how to [deal] with it.”
Recent public polling by Rasmussen Reports and Gallup suggests a nationwide split in opinion over the Trump administration’s proposed policy change.
Yu’s sentiment is common among the Chinese diaspora who believe that social programs and hard-earned rights are sometimes compromised by undocumented immigrants and others who take advantage of the system.
“We worked and worked and worked, all the way until we both retired,” Hong explained of her and her husband’s early years in the country. “If you come to the U.S. like this, that is perfectly OK, but some came and started to get immediately on welfare.”
This is a common misconception, but undocumented immigrants do not qualify for welfare, and legal immigrants must wait five years before becoming eligible for federal “means-tested” financial benefits. Additionally, the legal application process screens for applicants deemed likely to become government-dependent, a policy known as public charge.
Wellington Chen, who runs a local development corporation in Manhattan called Chinatown Partnership, says such foul play is rare in his neighborhood of mostly small businesses.
“These people came here [and] didn’t take away any jobs; if anything, they hired helpers, they put their kids through college, they work long hours, they work the jobs that no one wants to do,” Chen said. “They didn’t ask for handouts.”
American Dream, fulfilled
Strolling through Columbus Park, U.S.-born Nicholas Louie, 23, together with his grandfather, Thomas Louie — a product of family-based immigration — talked about the meaning of family.
Sponsored by his own grandfather, the elder Louie came to the U.S. as a teenager more than 60 years ago and was followed by his seven younger siblings. Altogether, their extended family includes a physician, a college professor and a math teacher.
Louie’s grandson says he doesn’t take having his family close by for granted and has difficulty imagining how different life would be if more visa restrictions were applied.
“What’s that to say about the next generation, when there’s children asking where’s [my] grandfather … or where’s [my] uncle?’” Louie said. “Why do they have no family, but everyone else seems to have this wide, extended family?”
His own family unit, Louie adds, is fulfilling the American Dream.
“[Our elders] just wanted all of us to be good, make our own money, be satisfied with what we have and retain the family,” Louie said. “That’s really important.”
VOA Turkish Service reporter Asli Pelit contributed to this report.