A Long Wait at the Back of the Immigration Line
Policy + Politics

A Long Wait at the Back of the Immigration Line

A political catchphrase of the prolonged immigration reform controversy in Congress is that, regardless of what changes eventually are hammered out, the more than 11 million undocumented residents in this country will have to “go to the end of the line” to apply for permanent legal status or citizenship.

Early this year, House Republican leaders harshly criticized a Senate-passed bipartisan reform package because it would provide a special pathway to citizenship for many illegal immigrants living in this country — which Republicans rejected as amnesty. “If you want to get in line to get a green card like any other immigrant, you can do that,” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said at the time. “You just have to get at the back of the line so that we preference that legal immigrant who did things right in the first place.”

Related: Boehner Has Backed Himself into a Corner on Immigration

That sounds simple and eminently fair, but it’s really more complicated and challenging than that. And given the mind-boggling myriad of government immigration rules and quotas, even people who try to play by the rules can find themselves stuck in a seemingly endless limbo, according to experts.

A French national with a bachelor’s degree and a U.S. employer’s sponsorship may wait for two years or so to qualify for a green card to legally work in the United States. But another green card applicant from India with the same college degree and employer sponsorship likely must wait 11 years or more for that valuable visa.

For a resident of the Philippines who is seeking to join a sibling who is living in the U.S. as a naturalized citizen, the wait can be as long as 24 years — nearly a quarter of a century — if he or she is willing to wait that long or lives that long. And for the truly determined Filipino who hopes to make it all the way to U.S. citizenship, the waiting period could top 30 years.

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The Agence France Press reported last year about a 58-year-old Filipino, Arnulfo Babiera, who applied for a U.S. green card a decade ago, hoping to be reunited with his sister who became a naturalized citizen in the U.S. But because there are so many requests from China, Mexico, India, and the Philippines, Babiera may have to wait until 2027 to get his green card.

“I’ll be retired before he comes here, I think!” his 56-year-old sister, Elizabeth Babiera, a nurse who lives in suburban Washington, told the news organization.

“This idea of going to the back of the line sounds like a reasonable and simple thing to do, but it’s complicated by the fact that there are so many lines — and for some people the line does not exist,” Madeleine Sumption, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told The Fiscal Times this week. “The idea that the people can simply get in the back of the line is a little bit simplistic in practice.”

Related: 21 Surprising Facts About Illegal Immigration

The U.S. immigration law and policy grants permanent immigrant status to 675,000 people worldwide, with about 70 percent of those granted access because they have close relatives already legally living here, according to the American Immigration Council. Congress and the president determine a separate number of refugee admissions, according to the American Immigration Council.

Immigration law is based on four overarching principles: the reunification of families, admitting immigrants who have skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity. 

The U.S. arguably has one of the more lenient set of laws for allowing foreigners to immigrate to this country; most other countries have tough laws that severely limit the number of immigrants in any year. But because the waiting periods are so onerous, the U.S. immigration system in practice is highly exclusionary.

There are an estimated 4.4 million people on waiting lists to qualify for family-based or employment visas to enter the U.S., with waiting times ranging on average from five years to 20 years. Experts say there are so many different types of visas and regulations — and so many peculiarities to the law and bureaucratic snafus — that discussing the length of lines is almost meaningless.

Related: Jeb Bush’s Heretical View of Illegal Immigration

“The lines are uniquely American unfortunately,” said Sumption. “The U.S. is kind of torn between wanting to be generous, yet not wanting to be too generous — so putting a cap on the numbers. And that means that on paper U.S. laws pretend to give people the right to come to the country, but in practice they have to wait so long that many of them may as well not have that right.”

William A. Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, argues that while these long lines for foreigners playing by the rules is problematic, the more urgent challenge is addressing the plight of the 11.7 million illegal immigrants worried about deportation and the breakup of their families.

“I think that the important point about immigration reform — were it to occur — is that most of the people who are now in the shadows would not have to wait long — if at all — for a legal process to bring them out of the shadows, enable them to participate lawfully and more fully in the economy and in their local community life,” he said yesterday.

Related: Schumer Calls Boehner’s Bluff on Immigration Reform

Galston, a government affairs scholar with the Brookings Institution, insists that any serious immigration reform proposal would have to include a requirement for a lengthy path to a green card or citizenship. “That is, politically speaking, the price of admission,” he said. “If you can’t affirm that, you’re really not part of the serious debate.”

The bipartisan immigration reform package passed by the Senate last year would establish a lengthy 13-year path to citizenship in which qualified undocumented immigrants are initially granted Registered Provisional Immigrant status for a decade and then are in Lawful Permanent Resident status for three additional years before they may apply to become naturalized citizens. The pathway includes a number of tough requirements — such as four separate background and criminal checks and payment of at least $2,000 in penalties plus application fees.  

The bill includes a quicker path to citizenship for DREAMers — young people without status — and agricultural workers. 

House Republicans have spurned the Senate’s comprehensive plan and insist that if they do anything this year — which seems increasingly unlikely — it would have to be done in a piecemeal approach, with nothing resembling “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. While the House Judiciary Committee has voted out five bills, none of them directly addresses the plight of the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has said repeatedly that Republicans do not trust President Obama to enforce a broadly based immigration reform law. On Tuesday, the speaker said that the leadership was considering scheduling a separate floor vote on the ENLIST Act, according to Politico, a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country before they were 15 years old to join the military and seek U.S. citizenship after they honorably complete their service.

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