Anthony Mai knows something about government oppression. In 1989 he joined thousands of his fellow students in Shanghai to call for democracy during the crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
But today, it isn't the Chinese government that is the focus of his protests. It is a US immigration system that mandates that Mr. Mai, now a US green card holder, and his Chinese wife must live on separate continents for the first seven years of their marriage until her US residence visa is approved, probably in 2001.
"The USA is the human rights champion of the world, but I am wondering where are the human rights," asks Mai, a PhD candidate in physics at Penn State University.
He says since his marriage in 1994, he has spent a total of eight weeks with his wife, including their honeymoon.
Mai's case illustrates the toll in human anguish caused by the logjam in US immigration - a system that processes millions of immigration applications per year. And it raises questions about whether the US is treating its illegal immigrants better than an estimated 200,000 legal immigrants who, like Mai, who have abided by US law only to discover their foreign-born spouses face an immigration limbo for up to 10 years.
The problem is that as a legal permanent resident of the US, Mai must wait his turn in line before he can bring his wife to his adopted country. With more than 1 million applicants in front of him and a quota of only 88,000 approved each year, he knows it will be a long wait. But what he can't understand is why the US government won't allow his wife to make temporary visits to him in the US while they are waiting.
The answer lies in US immigration law. "There is no provision in the law for allowing that kind of special consideration," says Maria Rudensky, a State Department spokeswoman.
The reason is that the government is concerned that people granted permission to enter the country who have previously declared their intention of immigrating to the US may not go home when their temporary visa expires. To prevent that, US consulates around the world are instructed to deny tourist visa requests for spouses and dependent children whose immigration applications are pending.
To counter what they see as an inhumane policy, some 250 permanent legal residents like Mai have formed the Association of Professionals for Spouse Reunification. The group is largely made up of men who came to the US to attend college or work in professional and highly technical jobs. They received green cards, but then they married women who weren't US residents. Only later did they discover a green card doesn't entitle them to bring a spouse immediately to the US.
A temporary reprieve?
The group is lobbying Congress to amend the law. They understand Congress is in no mood to speed up the spousal visa process, so they are seeking a provision to allow temporary visits for wives of permanent residents during the visa-approval process. A bill is expected to be introduced this week by Rep. Frank Pallone (D) of New Jersey.
"All we are asking is for some dignity in our lives through family reunification," says association head Parmeshwar Coomar, an industrial engineering professor in Fond du Lac, Wisc., whose wife has been waiting more than a year for a US visa in Calcutta, India. It may take nine more years.
"There is no national interest served in keeping spouses separated for such a long time," he says.
But, from a policy perspective, temporary visits are a controversial subject. "Of 5 million illegal aliens in the US more than 40 percent are people who overstayed their visas," says Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"In many cases it is very much economically driven," says Ms. Rudensky. "These are people who have no reason to stay in their home country. They have already decided to pitch everything they have in their native country and move to the US. So why should they come for a vacation?"
Mai, Mr. Coomar, and their colleagues at APSR have a long list of reasons: So they can keep their marriages alive, so children don't grow up only seeing their fathers twice a year, so spouses may learn about their new country and better prepare for the transition.
Officials point out that there is nothing that prevents green-card spouses from traveling to visit their loved ones overseas. But many of the men are either students or young professionals who can't afford to pay for more than a few trips a year.
Logjam got bigger in 1986
It didn't always take so long to bring a spouse to the US. But in 1986 Congress granted amnesty to more than 2 million illegal immigrants. Most then applied to get legal status for their wives and children, many of whom were already in the US illegally.
Estimates are that more than 825,000 of the 1 million applications for spouses currently pending are for the wives or husbands of formerly illegal immigrants. The remaining 200,000 applications involve people like the Mais, who have obeyed US immigration laws, but who are now enduring lengthy delays because of the influx of illegal immigrants.
"The current immigration system rewards illegal behavior," says Joe Zhu, a Chinese computer scientist who lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, and has been a legal US resident for 12 years. "If I bring my wife here illegally she can stay," he says. "But if I behave legally we can be separated for up to five years. That is unfair to those who want to obey the law."
Carl Shusterman, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, says he recently helped a client bring his new wife immediately from Britain to the US. Rather than endure many years apart, the client surrendered his green card and applied for a temporary work visa, just as he had many years earlier when he came to the US.
"With a temporary visa Congress recognizes the value of families. When you come in on a temporary visa your spouse automatically gets a visa to stay with you," Mr. Shusterman says.
The other option is for green card holders to become US citizens. Then they are no longer subject to the quota on visas for spouses. But it can several years to qualify for citizenship and still take up to a year more to process and approve a spouse's visa.
Mai says the last time he was turned down for a tourist visa for his wife he offered the US consulate in China a blank check and told them to fill in any amount that did not exceed his life savings. "If she overstays her visa even one day, I told them, they could take the money," he says.
The consulate was unmoved. Visa denied.