Long immigration waits show why some come illegally

Published: Sunday, July 18 2010 12:34 a.m. MDT

A woman identifying herself as L.M. stands in her Salt Lake home. Barring a miracle, she will be deported July 24.

Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah

This is the first article in a four-part series on immigration

PROVO — Ruth Ceballos sits on her faded white couch, her elegant hands clasped in her lap, as the late afternoon sun streams through the front window. She has worked all day, and she is tired — the exhaustion is evident on her face — but she will not take off her shoes, even though her feet ache. In her native Colombia, it is rude to go barefoot in the presence of guests, and despite two years in this country, there are some customs from the old country she still honors.

In some ways, it seems like a strange dream that Ceballos is here, in this small wood-frame house on a quiet street in Pleasant Grove. While some cross the border in days, and others in weeks, it took Ceballos a decade to get to the United States. That's because she came here legally. In October of 2007, after a decade of wading through government red tape, she finally won a visa.

The trouble was, Ceballos had been trying to get a visa for so long that her three children had grown into adults during her decade-long wait, meaning that because they were no longer minors, they would not qualify to immigrate with her and her husband.

Ceballos had a choice. She could stay near her children in Bogata, or she could immigrate. She chose America, with hopes of bringing her children here later.

While the immigration debate is often framed around those who come here illegally, people like Ceballos are emblematic of another part of the story that is rarely told and often misunderstood.

The State Department reports that some categories of Mexican immigrants who are now being processed have been waiting for visas for 18 years.

The long wait may explain why so many people jump the line and immigrate illegally — and also why many illegal immigrants fear deportation.

"I think almost any immigration attorney that you ask will say that the immigration system is simply broken. That's why we have people who have broken the law," says Roger Tsai, president of the Utah Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "But we also have broken laws."

The time it takes to immigrate legally to America depends largely on what relatives an immigrant already has in the country or what kind of education and job skills the immigrant can offer. Last year, the State Department reported that 3.7 million people are waiting in line for visas. At current rates, it would take 15 years to accommodate them all.

The luckiest of all potential immigrants are the spouses, minor children and parents of adult U.S. citizens. The federal government sets no quotas for them, so their immigration is supposedly relatively immediate.

But the experience of Clayton and Silvia Alvey shows such cases can still take time. When Clayton, a U.S. citizen, and Silvia, who is from Nicaragua, decided to get married, they looked at different ways to get a resident visa for Sylvia. If she immigrated as Clayton's fiancée, it would require an initial wait of six months to enter the country. What's more, they wouldn't even be able to begin the final application process until after they were married. Even then, the application could be rejected. They decided instead to marry in Nicaragua and wait for the visa there. Just filing the required forms took two months. Fees, medical exams, vaccines and other work cost more than $1,400.

A concert pianist who graduated from the University of Utah, Clayton had to give up his job to move to Nicaragua while he and his fiancée waited for approval. He started a small business selling and repairing XBOX consoles to save for what it would cost to immigrate to Utah.

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