Waiting in line: Why legal immigration can take decades

PHOENIX — As President-elect Donald Trump and the 115th Congress take control in January, immigration reform is expected to be a top priority, and Arizona is among the states with the most at stake.

Approximately 883,647 immigrants live in Arizona, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and according to a Pew Research Center analysis, approximately 300,000 of them are undocumented.

During an immigration policy speech in Phoenix in August, Trump addressed this population directly.

“For those here today illegally who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and only one route: to return home and apply for re-entry under the rules of the new legal immigration system,” he said.

The extent to which that is possible is a key question as immigration reform efforts progress, and those involved in the current system say it is often misunderstood.

Edgar Garcia, of Mesa, understands how long leaving the United States and re-entering through legal channels can take. It took him 15 years to become a U.S. citizen after waiting in line.

Garcia, 28, first came to the United States after his father, a lawful permanent resident, petitioned on his behalf. From 1990 to 2000, the Garcias traveled back and forth from Guadalajara, Mexico to Chicago, where Garcia and his mother obtained visas and waited six years for green cards. Then he waited another nine years to receive full citizenship.

After navigating the system, myths about the accessibility of the immigration process, especially in the context of this past election, are frustrating, Garcia said.

“I don’t even know where [the candidates were] getting their resources from,” he said. “Do you even know what it takes to become a citizen? Do you even know what it takes to first of all get a visa to come here? To become a resident?”

The system as it stands

The current system requires applicants to enter the United States through one of three primary channels: family, employment or political asylum, according to a presentation by William Kandel, an immigration policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service.

Even with a family connection, a prospective immigrant can still expect to wait years.

“If you’re from Mexico or the Philippines and you are in line for a visa for married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and you applied in 1994, then they’re just reviewing your application today,” said Michelle Waslin, senior research and policy analyst for The American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy firm.

That’s because there are annual caps on the number of visas granted to immigrants of each country and overall caps on the number of visas granted through family and employment channels.

For spouses and children of lawful permanent residents, the number of visas awarded is capped at 114,000 per year, and the employment category is capped at 140,000 per year, according to Faye Hipsman, an analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan immigration think tank.

The per-country limit for 2016 is approximately 25,620, according to the U.S. Department of State. Mexico filed the most requests, with 1,344,429 applicants.

Hipsman said it is very difficult for immigrants to exit and re-enter the country to apply for citizenship, citing restrictions imposed on those who leave the country.

“They become subject to these three and 10-year bars, preventing them from re-entering the country,” said Hipsman. “You can waive the bars, but the standard is pretty high. You have to prove or establish that your absence or your separation from your family would cause extreme hardship.”

Family reunification is often the most compelling reason people choose to migrate to the United States, legally or illegally, said Hipsman.

“The myth is that you should ‘wait your line’ or ‘wait your turn,’” said Hipsman “But the reality is when that’s 20 years, especially for older parents or older people, that’s not really a viable option.”

Once immigrants become a U.S. resident through legal channels, they obtain permanent legal residency cards, otherwise known as green cards.

Garcia said he went through a strict vetting process.

“You never have the right to vote, whenever you travel you can only stay abroad for six months, and then you have to come back, otherwise you’re endangering your residency status,” said Garcia. “If you become a convicted felon you can lose your residency status.”

After an applicant receives a green card, the process can start to move more quickly because the United States does not place limits on citizenship, said Hipsman.

Potential changes ahead

One question for Trump and Congress will be what changes, if any, to make to the current pathway for legal residency and citizenship.

“When you look at the backlogs and how long people are actually waiting to immigrate in different countries, you could see why they push a lot of people to come either illegally over the border or getting a temporary visa and overstaying it,” said Hipsman.

The American Immigration Council argues that immigration laws should be “enacted and implemented in a way that honors fundamental rights,” according to the group’s website.

“Our organization believes that for people who have been here a long time, who can speak English, who work, who pay their taxes, who meet eligibility criteria, assuming they don’t have any criminal history, should be eligible to legalize their status here in the United States,” Waslin said.

Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates for stricter immigration policies, argues that the visa-overstay phenomenon provides opportunities for those here illegally to manipulate the immigration system to remain on U.S. soil.

“It gives you time to disappear or fabricate some other claim to remain in the United States,” said Mehlman. “What needs to happen is there needs to be a system that looks at people’s claims fairly but doesn’t allow them to simply play the system to a point where the system collapses under its own weight.”

FAIR wants to reduce immigration quotas to accept 300,000 applicants a year, down from the current rate of approximately 1 million immigrants per year, said Mehlman. The group advocates for a system that would not depend on an applicant’s home country or ethnic group, he said.

“Immigration should not be based on immutable characteristics such as where you come from, race, other things like that,” said Mehlman. “It should be based on other characteristics of merit.”

While FAIR favors immigration restrictions, the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled it an anti-immigration extremist group, a claim Mehlman dismisses.

“The Southern Poverty Law Center goes around slapping labels on organizations whose policies they happen to disagree with,” said Mehlman. “They find that it’s a good fundraising tool. FAIR has been around since 1979. FAIR’s position has been clear.”

While advocacy groups and politicians in D.C. debate the future of the immigration system, immigrants in Arizona and across the country continue to work their way through it.

In 2015, Garcia became a U.S. citizen, as did 13,747 other Arizona residents according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That leaves hundreds of thousands of others who continue to reside here illegally.

“The path to come to the United States, the path to become a resident, the path to become a citizen, it’s not an easy path,” Garcia said. “It’s not accessible to everybody.”