Remember the sacrifices of legal immigrants…and how they got here

In light of President Obama’s recent executive action announcement that will affect ~5 million undocumented immigrants inside the borders of the U.S., the voices of millions across the world, many of whom have been waiting patiently for years and sometimes decades to be reunited with their families, have not been heard in the US pundit circles.  Yes immigration is a political lightning rod for millions in the US, but the tens of millions living overseas who want to migrate to the US do not have a say in the US political process.  While the plight of millions of children or parents on the verge of getting deported, or the millions of youngsters facing discrimination in their homeland must be addressed, we must remember the sacrifices of tens of millions of people outside of America who, through simply following our legal immigration process, have already been separated from their parents, children or loved ones, sometimes for decades.

us-immigration-protest-1-2Given our current immigration law, people wanting to immigrate to the US (including the millions of immediately family members waiting to be reunited with their families) not only have to wait, but navigate the excruciatingly long and onerous bureaucratic process.  With all this hassle, thousands of dollars spent on obtaining identity documents (if you can even obtain them if you live in a war-torn country), financial sponsorships, medical exams, police certificates for every place you’ve ever lived (again, if you can actually obtaining them), and years of waiting just for a visa interview (and then if you are unlucky, more unknown years of waiting to get the visa approved), it is tempting to try to circumvent the system – be it illegally entering through land borders or from the ocean.  This is definitely not the intent of the executive action, which is why increased border security is part of the action plan. Fine. However, the more common way and tempting way to circumvent the law is overstaying a tourist visa, work visa, student visa or another non-immigrant visa.  Now, if deportations will be less stringently enforced, will this increase the temptation for overstays? To the millions who have already been deported and have waited 10+ years to come back to the US to see their families again, this will be a slap in the face (10 years is the minimum ban if you overstayed a tourist visa and now want to come back to the US).  Most importantly, if it is harder to deport those who overstay, wouldn’t it logically follow that in some quarters, there will be talks of tightening the issuance of regular tourist visas?  If that’s the case, then lots more families won’t be able to celebrate Christmas in the US together, parents won’t be able to see their children’s graduation in the US, and grandparents won’t be able to able to see their grandchildren in the US.  So could this executive action translate into collateral damage for millions more who will be more closely scrutinized and potentially refused if there is any indication that they will overstay their tourist, business, or student visas? Yes today there are millions of people around the world who want to go the US so badly, but they don’t qualify for any non-immigrant visa because they are clearly intending immigrants.  So legally, the only recourse they have is to apply for an immigrant petition and wait….

I want to illustrate just how long it can take to reunite with your family in the US with a “real-world” case – imagine you are from the Philippines and when you were 16, your older sister, at the age of 18, got into a reputable college and went to the US on a student visa.  She then found job in the US, got a work permit and adjusted status to become a permanent resident.  When you were 21, your sister had a baby boy, and your sister wanted your mother to move to the US to take care of the baby.  So your mother went to the US on a tourist visa and continued to stay in the US undocumented with your sister.  You and your father were left behind.   When your sister became eligible and naturalized to become a citizen when you were 26, she finally had the authority to petition for you to come to the US.  By this time, you had also married and a year later, you had your first child.  You knew you had to wait in this infamous “immigration queue”, but you didn’t know that this line would take exactly 23 years!

By the time your “priority date” became current, you are now 49 and have four children of your own.  You were elated to finally receive an invitation for a visa interview and in lightning speed, you and your family go all out to obtain all the passports, vaccinations, medical exams, and financial documents.  Your sister also paid thousands of dollars for a lawyer in the US to find you and your family a suitable American citizen financial sponsor because her income is not enough to support your family of six and her family of five.  And by the way, you also spent a couple thousand dollars on a couple trips to Dubai and Manama to obtain UAE and Bahraini police certificates since you worked for an international firm covering the Middle East.  Finally, you bring your entire family to the interview at the US Embassy, 600 miles away from the island you live, the interviewing officer tells you, “I’m very sorry sir, but your oldest son has aged out because he is over 21.”  Your wife breaks down right there and then, and you are seething but there is nothing you can do.  You have to leave your son behind.  You wonder to yourself if it is ever possible to reunite the whole family under US law?

This is just one example of the many iterations of heart-wrenching possibilities that could really happen for immigrant families under current US law.  All depending on your circumstances, any combinations of children left behind because of aging out, waiting 23 years+ as an adult as a brother or sister, children/young adults waiting 10+ years in their prime years and NOT being able to get married or they would be disqualified, or everybody disqualified because the petitioner or primary applicant died after 20+ years of waiting.  These are some of the struggles that you don’t see inside the US.

Just on the waiting part, here are some stats:

1) If you are the unmarried son or daughter of a US citizen and age 21+, if you received an invitation for a visa interview this year, then congratulations, you have been waiting for at least 7.5 years (20 years if you were born in Mexico)

2) If you are the married son or daughter of a US citizen, if you received an invitation for a visa interview this year, then congratulations, you have been waiting for at least 11 years (21.5 years if you were born in the Philippines, 21 years if you were born in Mexico).

3) If you are the sibling of a US citizen, if you received an invitation for a visa interview this year, then congratulations, you have been waiting for at least 12.5 years (23 years if you happen to be born in the Philippines, 17.5 years if you were born in Mexico)

So yes it may be very emotionally gratifying and the right thing to do for the millions of children and parents who have been living in their homeland under the shadows, it is equally emotional for millions of families with separated relatives overseas patiently standing in line.  Yes the problems inside US borders need to be fixed, and the executive action is a step in that direction.  But the whole immigration system affects not just those inside US borders, but millions more waiting already, and the tens millions more thinking about one day trying for the American Dream.  While we are now almost 15 years into the 21st century, U.S. immigration law is still largely based on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  Without a comprehensive immigration bill that can holistically address the deficiencies in the current immigration system, one just has to hope that there are no second order effects that will create even more agony for millions overseas who have so dutifully followed US immigration law.

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