Legal immigrants to U.S. face endless wait
With its backlogs and bureaucracy, the immigration system is punishing for those who play by the rules.
When Zeenat Potia started her application for US permanent residency – known as a green card – she assumed she'd get it in two years. But soon she was told to expect delays.Skip to next paragraph
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Five years later, Ms. Potia is still waiting.
For Potia, a native of India, the delays mean she must keep leaving and reentering the US to maintain her temporary work visa, or forfeit her right to travel outside the country. Last spring, Potia spent $1,000 to travel from Cambridge, Mass., to Montreal – just to get her passport stamped. "What if I needed to go [home to India] for an emergency?" she asks. "I needed that stamp."
Immigration has been a hot topic of late. But amid the furor over illegal immigrants, the plight of legal migrants caught in a system that is slow, erratic, and often unresponsive is largely ignored.
The result: talented, hardworking people who play by the rules are trapped in limbo, and even close relatives of American citizens may wait up to a decade to enter the US.
"Ten years is half of a lifetime for a child," says Cristina Rodriguez, a law professor specializing in immigration at New York University. "The backlogs are keeping families apart and diminishing confidence in the system."
This month, President Bush moved to ease the backlog of green-card applications by allowing applicants to obtain permanent residency before FBI security checks are complete, a rule change that will almost instantly benefit 47,000 people.
More than 3 million people were waiting for green cards in 2006. More recent statistics are not available but experts suggest this backlog is unlikely to have reduced been dramatically since then, especially after the surge of applications last summer when an application fee hike – from $395 to $1,010 per person – prompted a record 300,000 people to apply in the months leading up to the increase.
Yet, "It has been tremendously worse than it is now," claims US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) spokesman Shawn Saucier. He says average wait times are down, but acknowledges that "it's not where we want it to be."
By any standard, applying for US permanent residency – often a first step to citizenship – is an arduous, unpredictable process. Green-card applicants must find suitable sponsors, decipher complex legal jargon – for many, in an unfamiliar language – or spend thousands of dollars on lawyers to do it for them. They must gather and submit hundreds of pages of personal documents that vouch for their identity, professional qualifications, familial relationships, and financial security. They must also pay fees and expenses – for photos, medical examinations, and vaccinations – running into thousands of dollars.