Long immigration waits show why some come illegally

Published: Saturday, July 17 2010 10:00 p.m. MDT

The process takes much longer for other family members of U.S. citizens. In fact, the State Department no longer estimates how long new applicants should expect to wait for visas. In monthly bulletins, however, the State Department does report how long people now being processed have been waiting. For example, its July bulletin says several categories of people seeking family visas from Mexico applied for them in 1992 — 18 years ago.

Worse, some Filipino siblings of U.S. residents now being processed applied in 1989 — 21 years ago.

The shortest wait for any family visas now being processed is two years.

But those who choose not to wait run the risk of deportation. And contrary to popular belief, this even applies to those who marry U.S. citizens.

"L.M.," who asked that her full name not be used, fled political unrest in Central America in 1992. She met and married her husband, a U.S. citizen, in 2005. Last March, immigration officials appeared at her Salt Lake home and took her away. Her husband has spent the past year with petitions and forms to keep her here, but her deportation is set for July 24.

"We have a U.S. citizen who cannot have his wife here," says state Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake. "That is an atrocity."

It's a Tuesday morning at a popular restaurant in Bountiful. Back in the kitchen, things are quiet. There are no clanging dishes, nothing simmers on the big iron stove and the only smell is the sharp scent of the cleaning agent used to scrub the tile floor.

Lizet Gonzalez is here early, as she is most every day as the head cook and kitchen manager. Short and stocky, with smooth nut-brown skin, she projects an aura of confidence and gritty self-reliance.

Earlier this morning, she found out that she's on a list produced by a group called "Concerned Citizens of the United States." The 30-page document lists 1,300 people supposedly living in Utah illegally. Almost all the names are Hispanic.

Lizet admits that she came here illegally from Cuernavaca, Mexico. She wishes that weren't the case.

"Only people with money and connections can come here legally," she says. "And I didn't have either one."

Instead, Lizet paid a smuggler $1,800 to get here. The journey included five days in the desert without food or water, she says. She now lives in Salt Lake City with her husband, who works in a hotel, and their 2-year-old child.

"I feel bad about coming here illegally," she told El Observador. "But there's no way a person like me can get a visa. It doesn't work for poor people."

To some extent, Gonzalez is right. The Utah Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's Tsai says it's easier for people with advanced degrees or in high-demand, high-tech fields to get visas than people with fewer skills or little education.

Each year, 140,000 permanent immigrant visas are available for people sponsored by employers. The employers must certify that they have not been able to fill job vacancies with qualified U.S. workers.

The State Department visa bulletins report no backlog for what it calls "priority workers" with "extraordinary ability." These are people like Nobel Prize winners or Olympic athletes, Tsai says, or executives of multinational corporations.

But even people in one category lower — those with advanced degrees with "exceptional ability" — have to wait. For example, such people now being processed from China and India applied in 2005.

Waits for regular workers — people like Lizete Gonzalez — can be much longer. Every year, the U.S. allows 40,000 people in on employment visas who do not have a bachelor's degree or higher but do have at least two years of experience in a specified field. But no more than 7 percent of those visas can go to any one country, which is why Mexico's current waiting list is 2,800 names long. In the meantime, half-a-million people a year attempt to cross the southern border looking for these types of jobs.

Immigrants now being processed in the "skilled worker" category applied seven years ago, which would be a long time for any employer to wait.

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