Many legal immigrants hope to bring family to the U.S., but it can take decades


The weekly telephone calls to Honduras are the toughest of all. They only seem to widen the gulf between Ana Andino and her mother, Ana Enriquez, in Baltimore and the rest of the family back home waiting to join them.

Although mother and daughter have followed all the legal steps to ensure that Enriquez's four other children join them as legal immigrants, like hundreds of thousands of families stuck in the nation's labyrinthine immigration system, they must wait.

Immigrant families can be separated for years - and in extreme cases, decades - because of a huge backlog of cases and a complexity of rules that give priority to some family members, while leaving others behind.

As pundits and politicians continue the furious debate over whether to legalize some, all or none of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, reform that would help unify legal immigrant families appears to be one element upon which policymakers can agree.

The U.S. Senate's sweeping immigration reform package, which passed last week, includes provisions to slash the backlog.

"It is one issue that fortunately as a nation we are not even debating," said Crystal L. Williams, deputy director of programs for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a Washington advocacy group.

"We are taking it as a given that family unification is important. There's only so long that you can be away from your spouse and your child."

Even groups pushing for restrictions on immigration agree that reform is needed. Because of an excessive backlog, some people refuse to wait and instead enter the United States illegally, only adding to the millions of illegal residents already here.

"It's a bad idea to have an immigration law that has a long waiting period," said Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies. "It creates an incentive for people to come here and wait for the day to become legal."

The wait times highlight a public misconception of the immigration system, say advocates. The majority of immigrants applying to be legal U.S. residents or "green card" holders do so through employers or family, and both systems have enormous backlogs. An immigrant may become a citizen after five years as a legal permanent resident.

Andino, 25, knows the challenges all too well. A translator for Baltimore's public schools, she has lived in the U.S. since she was 12 and last year became a citizen. When she was a child, Andino's parents divorced and her father immigrated to Iowa for a factory job. As a legal permanent resident, her father was able to apply to have Andino join him.

As an adult, Andino moved to Baltimore and petitioned for her mother. Enriquez received her green card two years ago and immediately filed applications for her other children - ages 21, 17, 15 and 12. Her attorney has advised that the family will need patience - five years' worth.

"It's hardest when they are sick or if they need money," said Enriquez, formerly an elementary school teacher in Honduras, who now works double shifts at restaurants in the Inner Harbor. She says it's the best job she can obtain without fluent English. "It's very hard. My children need me and I need them."

Sometimes she becomes so frustrated she wants to leave.

"I love this country like it is my own," she said. "But sometimes I want to pack my bags, get on a plane and go back."

Enriquez's children could face additional delays because of their ages. Immigration through family members is based on a convoluted quota system with different priorities depending on the family relationship. The adult children - 21 and older - of green card holders are considered separately from adult children of citizens. And children are processed separately from adults.

For example, a 17-year-old child of a green-card holder might begin the process in a particular category, but once the child turns 21, his or her application is thrown into the adult backlog, said Ana Zigel, a Baltimore immigration attorney.

"It's horrible," she said. "Families have to make tough choices."

No one nation may receive more than 7 percent of the total 226,000 green card slots. And in countries that have maxed out their quota - Mexico, China, India and the Philippines - the wait times can be greater.

The State Department Web site posts a "visa bulletin," an ever-changing timetable of processing times for the most popular countries.

U.S. citizens who have applied for siblings from the Philippines currently have the longest wait times: The department is still processing applications dating from Nov. 1, 1983.

"The fact is you can start applying today and you can wait, depending on your categories, anywhere from four to 24 years for them to get to your place in line," said Williams. "When we talk about a system that exists for the purpose of family unification, that's insane."

Although efforts have been made to streamline the system, waiting lists haven't budged in the past year, according to a study released last week from the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit research group.

"Behind every statistic related to waiting lists and backlogs stands tens of thousands of individuals and their family members," the study states. "The best way to honor legal immigrants both now and in the future is to solve the immigration and backlog problems that cause such pain, frustration and heartache."

So far, the Senate has heard the pleas for reform. The immigration bill would raise the annual number of slots available for family-based immigration from 226,000 to 480,000.

"It makes a tremendous difference to family members, particularly from Mexico and the Philippines," said Williams. "I think it will help enormously to bring most of the quota backlogs at least reasonably close to current."

Advocates hope the House of Representatives, which passed a more stringent immigration measure in December, will consider the Senate plan.

To others, however, the thousands of legal immigrants arriving in the U.S. raise policy concerns. Camarota, whose group advocates for stricter immigration policies, said that while the wait lists are unfair, immigrants who come through family channels tend to have the lowest levels of educational attainment, raising concerns about the future of the American economy.

The issue of legal immigration deserves its own debate, he said.

"In many ways, the dramatic increases in legal immigration are maybe more important to the nation as a whole," he said.

But Andino doesn't see it that way. She maintains that since arriving in the U.S. she has played by the rules and doesn't understand why her family must continue to be separated.

"I'm a citizen, I love this life," she said. "But I want my family with me."

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