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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.

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And that's just to submit the application. Applicants can then spend years navigating bureaucracy – or just waiting. "When the system works, it works ... when it goes wrong, it's hard to fix it," said Patrick Klauss, a partner in the immigration law firm Berd & Klauss, PLLC, in New York City.

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A nightmare for families

All prospective immigrants take the same first step toward getting their green cards: finding someone – an employer or a close family member – to sponsor their applications. Some avenues are easier than others: marrying a US citizen, for example, almost certainly ensures a green card within a year.

But no option is free of anxiety, and the potential for setbacks is endless.

Justin Fertitta, a young chef in New York City, was born in the United States and his wife, Chrissie, is from Malaysia and first came to the US on a student visa. The Fertittas applied for her green card shortly after their June 2006 wedding, but neglected to disclose that Mrs. Fertitta had been arrested for shoplifting as a teenager. "She stole a belt from J.C. Penney when she was 19," says Mr. Fertitta. "She didn't think it was an actual arrest, but it went down on paperwork."

Immigration officials brought up the arrest in the interview, accused the Fertittas of lying, and denied the green card. The couple applied again and were denied again. Their case went to immigration appeals court, to determine whether the couple get to stay together in the US.

"[I]t's a horrible system," says Fertitta. "It's the uncertainty and having other people mess with your life that's the worst."

Quotas haven't kept up with demand

Employers sponsoring green-card applicants must first prove that no American citizen can fill the job, then demonstrate that applicants are specially qualified for the position and that the company can pay them.

Some employers bend the rules – often at the applicant's expense. Sandra Braganza obtained her green card through her employer, the now-defunct Sheena Perfumes, which recruited her from India. The company made Ms. Braganza seem highly qualified, though she was not, by misrepresenting her salary. "So I took a 'paper' salary of $70,000, and I paid taxes on that money each year," says Ms. Braganza. Meanwhile, she struggled to survive in New York City on $25,000 a year.

Employment-based green cards are regulated by a quota system, which limits the cards issued each year. In countries like India, China, and Mexico, where quotas have not kept up with demand, the backlog stretches back years. State Department statistics show that some applications from those countries filed in 2001 are just now being processed.