Getting in line for immigration

“Go to the back of the line” is one of the mantras of the current immigration debate, but few know what the line looks like.

NPR reported on one of the couples currently in line for a visa. Maria’s husband applied for a visa in 1997. He’s still waiting. Applications for his visa category are backlogged to 1993, and the line is not moving, according to his lawyer. But they’re lucky — they qualify for a visa, some day, because of a family relationship. You want to immigrate and you don’t have a close relative in the United States? There’s probably not even a line for you to get in.

There are separate lines for some countries, different lines for spouses and adult children and brothers and sisters.

The Immigration Policy Center explains the lines:

There are numerical limits on most family categories, with demand typically higher than the number of available green cards. This results in significant backlogs for most family members hoping to enter the U.S. legally, with some immigrants from some countries waiting decades for entry. For example, an immigrant residing in the U.S. legally with a green card must wait at least five years to receive a green card for her minor child. U.S. citizens must wait 16 years for a green card for a married son or daughter if they are coming from Mexico. While U.S. citizens and Legal Permanent Residents wait their turn to get a green card for their family member, it is nearly impossible for that family member to receive permission to even visit the U.S. Mothers, fathers and children, therefore, face years of separation or they may decide to risk breaking the law by entering illegally. Doing so, however, makes their chances at eventually receiving green cards even more distant and unlikely.

The shortest line — for spouses and children of permanent residents — is two years and four months, according to the February 2013 Visa Bulletin. The longest line — for brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens from the Philippines — stretches back to June 1, 1989.

Southern California Public Radio tells the story of one family’s wait in line:

In the mid-1980s, Meeran Mahmud was a child in her native Pakistan when an uncle in the U.S. offered to sponsor an effort to secure immigrant visas for Mahmud’s mother and children, including Meeran’s older sister, Maryam.

“My sister must have been around 12 when my uncle applied for [us],” Meeran says.

As they waited for their visas, a decade passed. Maryam turned 21, which left her aged out of the petition. That meant Maryam had to remain in Pakistan when the rest of the family left 17 years ago.

Three years ago, when the mother finally became a U.S. citizen, she filed a new petition for her older daughter.

“But now she’s going to be 40,” Mahmud says of her sister, “and she still has no status.”

According to the NPR article, an estimated four million people are waiting in various lines. Part of any humane immigration reform is letting those people in. Now.

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