Legal Immigrants Stuck in the System

October 30, 2007

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Debate over immigration reform has been largely focused on border security and the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. But legal immigrants are also calling for reform.  Last year, more than 1.2 million people became legal permanent residents or green card holders. For many people trying to enter the country legally, the process can be a nightmare. This story is part of our series Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders.

ambi: USCIS office noise, security walkie talkie

Just a few people waiting in line at the Chicago district office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Nowadays, appointments are made over the internet.
A Chinese woman has her number called and stands behind the glass barrier at the information counter.

ambi: the question is after the interview what typically happens with the greencard…

This is the government agency where people come to get their applications processed to live in the U.S. legally.
It can, at times, be a frustrating place. Especially when your case gets stuck in the system.

One man from India has come to find out about the status of his application for citizenship. He's hoping to bring his fiancée to the United States but he can't do that unless he becomes a U.S. citizen first. He says that it has been difficult to find out information about his case. 

MAN IN LINE: I have been in the country for about 8 years now, came as a student, work in the business in the business consulting industry now and my citizenship has been stuck for over two years. They say it's something called name check.

The name check is part of the increased security and background checks put into place following the attacks of 9/11 to help prevent terrorists or people with ties to terrorist organizations from entering the country legally.  Immigration agency spokeswoman Marilu Cabrera explains.

CABRERA: For every single application, regardless of whether it's a fiancé visa or any employment type of visa we do a complete background check on every single individual. Again, regardless of application, nationality, age and that information we check against our database. That information goes through the FBI through their database. Before we naturalize a person or give them permanent residency or give them any sort of immigration benefit we need to hear from the FBI saying it's ok. 

According to a report presented to Congress in June, more than thirty percent of the name check cases have been pending for more than a year. 

For the people waiting, life is on hold. Without legal status you do some of the basic things like get a driver's license. You might not be able to work. Sometimes families are separated during the wait. In other cases people just find themselves in a kind of limbo. That's what Husam is facing. 

He's at home in Chicago Ridge with his wife Fatima and his son Hamza, who is getting ready for his nap.

Ambi baby laughing.

Husam has a long beard and wears the traditional Saudi ankle length cotton shirt. His father was a doctor for a U.S. oil company so the family lived on the company compound. Husam even went to American schools.
He drives a truck for a living which, he says, is only temporary.

HUSAM: Trucking is just like the bread and butter for now. But yeah, I have bigger dreams and hopes.

Husam came to Chicago to study. Then, he met Fatima, a U.S. citizen. They married in 2005 and filed paperwork to adjust his status and get a green card, which would give him permanent residence in the United States.

But the security checks have not been completed.
Husam can't leave the country to visit his family because he is concerned he won't be allowed back into the United States. He and Fatima also can't make any plans for the future. He'd like to go to law school.

HUSAM: The uncertainty of it. I don't know if I'm going to build a life here or if I should start looking for a job back home. I do want to finish my education but my education is the kind that wouldn't serve me overseas. And of course, law school is an investment.

He thinks his case is taking longer because he comes from the Middle East.

But Marilu Cabrera says this is not the case. 

CABRERA: We do not profile anyone, any nationality, any religion. There may be delays in name checks, there may be delays in the background checks but again that is a process that we need to go through. And it is a process that, I've seen delays in background checks for people from all different nationalities.

That's true. The necessary checks can affect people from all countries. But the long waits and backlogs aren't just a result of background checks by the FBI and immigration.

Critics of the current immigration law say it unfairly separates families.

Even though the law allows legal immigrants to apply to bring their family members to the United States, the law also limits the number of immigrant visas allotted for each country in a given year.

In countries like China, India, Mexico and the Philippines, which traditionally send many immigrants to the U.S., the wait can be especially long.

PERRYMAN: For instance in the Philippines I think it's something like a twenty-year wait. And that's because the numbers of people who have applied and gotten their visa petitions approved but are overseas are so great that there are not enough visas allocated for them under the law.

Brian Perryman is a retired regional director of the immigration agency. Perryman believes our current immigration laws don't work.

PERRYMAN: Why are we separating families in that way? If I'm an immigrant father and I legally immigrated here and my wife and my child are in the Philippines or a long ways away, I want them here. If they're in Mexico, I want them here with me. Why wouldn't we bring them in together?

These are difficult questions in the complex and emotional debate over immigration reform. Some say we need to switch to an employment-based system that brings in more highly skilled workers, not more families.

Congress remains divided as legal immigrants continue to wade through the system.

Earlier this month Congresswoman Yvette Clarke introduced legislation that would reduce background check delays.

In the meantime, Husam has filed a lawsuit in federal court in order to try to force the government to make a decision on his case. 
 
This report was edited by Sally Eisele, the executive producer of Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders. Alison Cuddy is the Project Coordinator.

Chicago Matters is an annual public information series made possible by The Chicago Community Trust, with programming by Chicago Public Radio, WTTW 11, the Chicago Public Library, and The Chicago Reporter.  Visit www.chicagomatters.org for more information.