NEW YORK (AP) — Sergio Garcia, the Californian granted a law license despite being in the U.S. illegally, has been waiting in vain since 1994 to get an immigration visa. Depending on their connections and home country, the wait for some would-be immigrants is far shorter, but delays of a decade or two are routine for many others — notably from the Philippines and Garcia's homeland, Mexico.
Here are some questions and answers about the U.S. immigration system, and the widely varying waiting times facing those who deal with it.
Q: How many people are "in line" seeking to emigrate to the U.S.? Are they on any sort of comprehensive official list?
A: There are many different queues, depending on where a would-be immigrant is from and what sort of family and job prospects they have in the United States. In general, to obtain an immigrant visa, an applicant must be sponsored by a prospective employer or relative who is either a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.
According to the latest State Department figures, there are 4.2 million immigrant visa applications pending at U.S. diplomatic missions abroad based on family sponsorships, and about 111,600 employment-based applications. On top of this are permanent-residency applications filed by people already in the U.S., such as refugees and foreign students.
Q: How many of the immigrant visa applications are likely to be approved?
A: Under current U.S. law, immigrant visas for the 2014 fiscal year are limited to no more than 226,000 for family-sponsored applications and about approximately 150,000 for job-related applications.
Q: In terms of chances for approval, does it make a difference what country an immigrant is from?
A: Yes. The timetable for consideration of family-based applications is markedly slower for those filed in Mexico and the Philippines, because those countries have more people seeking to come to the U.S. and thus account for large backlogs.
For 2014, the maximum number of applications that can be approved from any one country is set at 26,320, while Mexico has 1,312,198 pending applications and the Philippines has 436,639. Under U.S. law, no one country can account for more than 7 percent of the approved applications.
In regard to employment-based applications, timetables for China and India can be slower than normal because of the relatively large number of job applications they account for.
Q: How long can the waits be?
A: For some categories, applications can be processed in just a few months — for highly skilled professionals, for children being adopted by American parents, for the spouses or fiances of American citizens.
However, the timetable is far slower for adult children or siblings of U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Even from countries with the most favorable standing under U.S. immigration law, it's estimated that such applications will take from 10 to 12 years to be processed. For applicants from Mexico and the Philippines, the estimated wait is even longer — 20 years for applicants from Mexico like Garcia who are adult children of a legal U.S. resident; 23 years for Filipinos who are siblings of adult U.S. citizens.
Waits can also be long for job-related visas. According to Stuart Anderson, an immigration expert who is executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, an applicant from India seeking a certain type of employment-based visa could potentially wait 70 years to get approval.
Q: How precise are the timetables?
A: Every month, the State Department issues an updated Visa Bulletin that includes the latest estimates of how long the application process is taking for different categories. Some immigration lawyers complain that these estimates can vary markedly over time, making it hard for them to advise clients how long their case might take.
"You expect the waiting time to keep getting shorter, but sometimes it gets worse," said Kathleen Walker, an immigration attorney from El Paso, Texas. "It will drive you out of your mind trying to figure out how long it takes."
Q: Isn't it only fair that immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally should have to join those who are facing such long waits while applying though legal channels?
A: That's the viewpoint of many Americans, including some who favor immigration reforms that would provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. illegally. President Barack Obama, for example, has said such immigrants should go to "the back of the line."
However, some immigration lawyers and activists say this would be unfair and unrealistic, given the long waiting times.
"Most of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants would love to get in line if they could," Texas-based immigration lawyer Dan Kowalski wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last year. "They remain without papers because they don't fit into any visa preference... Without a relative to petition for them under a family-based preference or a job that fits into an employment-based category, there's no line to enter."
Stuart Anderson, among others, has recommended eliminating the per-country limit for employment-based immigrants and liberalizing it for family-sponsored immigrants.
"After all," Anderson has written, "an ability to wait a long time should not be the characteristic most prized in an immigrant to the United States."
State Department information: http://www.travel.state.gov/visa/bulletin/bulletin_6228.html
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