Some programs allow workers to come temporarily to America under sponsorship by an employer, but their numbers are limited, and competition is fierce. About 65,000 "H1B" visas, for example, are available each year for people with higher education who have specialized skills — such as recent university grads who would like to work here for a few years.
"Most years, those get exhausted very, very quickly — like the first day," Tsai says. As a result, well-connected immigrants have their attorneys ready to deliver the thick applications the first day they are accepted each year.
Worker visas do not equal permanent residency, though, which is what many immigrants want. They last for three years, and then workers must return home. These visas are also tied to particular employers, meaning workers can't switch jobs or quit.
"The day they are fired or laid off, they are technically not legally in the United States anymore," Tsai says. "It's tough enough to lose a job, but then to have to pick up your family and go back to where you came from is almost unfathomable and, in some ways, inhumane."
There are, of course, quicker ways to get here legally. Someone willing to invest $500,000 to $1 million and create at least 10 new jobs can apply for an entrepreneur's visa, which currently has no waiting list. Law enforcement can also issue special visas to those who cooperate with investigations.
Today, Utah stands at the forefront of the national immigration debate, and as early as next month, state legislators are expected to meet during interim meetings to discuss a controversial immigration bill now being drafted by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem. Sandstrom is modeling the bill after a law passed in Arizona that requires law enforcement officers to ask for immigration papers "whenever there is reasonable suspicion that the person is unlawfully present."
While some say the law is unconstitutional and could result in racial profiling, Sandstrom says he expects it to pass. Polls suggest he has the backing of a majority of Utahns.
Earlier this year, Sandstrom told El Observador that just because he supports an immigration law with teeth doesn't mean his not empathetic toward Hispanic immigrants who come here to better their lives. He just thinks they should do so legally.
But Latinos say the proposal is sending them a different message: You're not wanted here. And critics of the law say it does little to solve the real problem.
"It's tempting to say the problem is this or that, but it's multifaceted," says Stan Rasmussen, director of public affairs for the Sutherland Insitute, a Utah-based conservative think tank. "The bottom line is, the federal government has failed to have and implement a functional immigration policy. In the meantime, there is a human intent to improve, to support one's family, and at the same time, you have the American marketplace that has a need for workers beyond those that are already here. But because of the federal government's failure to address this problem, we don't have a functional front door and people are coming in other ways."
The Sutherland Institute is proposing what it sees as a compromise to Sandstrom's bill — a working-privilege card. Rasmussen says it would bring people out of the shadows and in so doing, address many of the problems that exist with illegal immigration.
It is unlikely the issue is going to be resolved any time soon, regardless of what measures the state Legislature passes. According to the most recent estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, there are 110,000 illegal immigrants living in Utah. And despite the long waits, 6,466 people did manage to immigrate to Utah legally in 2009 with green cards, according to the State Department.
More than half — 3,379 — were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Legal immigrants came from Mexico, Peru, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and 16 other countries.
"We would hope that when policy-makers sit down, they would see immigrants as they see themselves, as people, and not as second class citizens," Rasmussen said.
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