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

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.

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.

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.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com, ckkinner@elobservadordeutah.com, tnavarro@elobservadordeutah.com See KSL's "Dream Divided" series tonight on Channel 5 at 10 p.m.