When Home Is Neither Here Nor There

Mela Garza lives in Maryland with her husband, Angel, and daughter, Veronica. But while he is a U.S. permanent resident, she is among the thousands of
Mela Garza lives in Maryland with her husband, Angel, and daughter, Veronica. But while he is a U.S. permanent resident, she is among the thousands of "quasi-legal" immigrants. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 3, 2005

It's been two years since Mela Garza emerged into the sign-waving crowd at Dulles International Airport, dropped her suitcases and fell into the arms of her husband, the genial friend from her Guatemalan village whom she'd married in 2000 and had barely seen since.

It was an iconic American scene: an immigrant wife joining her husband, who'd left for the United States years earlier. But unlike the women who passed through Ellis Island, Garza did not automatically get full immigrant status. She arrived on a special "spouse visa" and is still waiting to become a U.S. permanent resident.

"I'm a bit desperate. You always want to be a legal permanent resident, to feel more secure," said the 29-year-old Gaithersburg woman, whose husband, a permanent resident here, married her after a long-distance courtship.

As the debate over legal-vs.-illegal immigration heats up across the country, there is a large pool of people who fall somewhere in the middle. They have been nicknamed the "quasi-legal" -- tens of thousands of people in the Washington area, and as many as 1.5 million nationwide, who have temporary papers or are in line for residency.

They are people like Garza, who must wait a number of years and fulfill various requirements to become full-fledged permanent residents, the first step toward U.S. citizenship. They also include a quarter-million Salvadorans who have been granted temporary legal permits in recent years, elevating many from illegal status but giving them no path toward citizenship.

To those on both sides of the immigration debate, the large number of people in limbo is a sign of a dysfunctional system. Immigrant advocates say foreigners with a deep stake in U.S. society are enduring great difficulties in settling here. Critics of high immigration levels say the quasi-legal reflect a government that passes tough laws but is reluctant to enforce them.

"The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people who aren't really illegal aliens -- but they're not really legal aliens either -- is ridiculous," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which urges tougher immigration enforcement. "It's a sign of the deep ambivalence that permeates our immigration system."

Garza offers one example of how people land in immigration limbo. Her husband, Angel, sneaked into the United States in 1994 and eventually found a Maryland employer to sponsor him for a "green card," or permanent residency. In 1998, while vacationing in his home town, he struck up a romance with Garza, a childhood friend.

Two years later, he returned to marry her and sponsored her to immigrate. But because Congress sets annual quotas for many categories of immigrants, she had to wait in Guatemala while her case worked its way to the front of the line.

"I spent my time reading his letters, to remember him," said Garza, one of 11 children in a family that scratched out a living as farmers. She could call her husband only once every few weeks, when she could get a ride to the nearest public phone, an hour away.

Concerned about such separations, Congress created the "V" visa, which allowed spouses and children of permanent residents to join them in the United States while waiting for their cases to move forward. That was Garza's ticket to the United States.

But the visas are available only to a small group -- immigrants who sought residency before December 2000 and have been waiting at least three years for their green-card applications to be considered. Those whose petitions have been filed since then don't qualify. Such spouses and children may have to wait as long as seven years to join their families, because of the large number of applicants and processing delays.

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