Legal Residents Dismayed Over Latest Measures

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

With the immigration debate focused on the estimated 12 million immigrants who have come to the United States illegally, hundreds of thousands of others who have obeyed the law are disappointed by the legislation now pending in Congress.

They had hoped that immigration law would be changed to eliminate the five- to 10-year wait before their spouses and children can join them. But neither the compromise bill under debate in the Senate nor a House bill introduced this year addresses the backlog.

"I feel like I'm stuck in limbo," said Guillermo Benitez, 34, a janitor living in Hyattsville who has been waiting since 2002 to bring over his wife and daughter from El Salvador. "Just imagine -- my little girl is already 4 years old. I've already missed out on some of the nicest moments you get with your child," he said.

Last year, 112,051 green cards, which allow legal permanent residence, were granted to the more than 1.5 million spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents who have applied for them. The backlog means that, at best, applicants must wait five years to gain admission.

Compounding the pain of separation, during the wait for a green card, spouses and children of legal permanent residents are usually barred from visiting the United States temporarily, lest they be tempted to stay.

Legal permanent residents can still see their families by traveling abroad. But they are often hampered by the expense, limited vacation time and restrictions on how long they can remain outside the United States if they want to eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship.

"These are taxpaying, law-abiding residents. . . . It is unconscionable that they are being forced to choose between their family and their newly adopted country," said U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has co-sponsored an amendment that would expedite the process in such cases. The other sponsors are Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Separating legal permanent residents from their spouses and minor children "impedes the ability of immigrants to fully integrate into communities here," Karen K. Narasaki, head of the Asian American Justice Center, said at a news conference on Capitol Hill last week.

"Immigrants with families overseas must send much of their paychecks to these families instead of being able to save it to buy homes and invest in their communities here in the United States."

However, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to limit immigration, says that Congress should bar legal permanent residents from sponsoring their spouses and minor children for green cards.

"That's a pretty awesome power," Krikorian said. "It's basically privatizing the decision of who gets to come to the United States, and it should be reserved for people who have bought into America" by becoming U.S. citizens.

Although legal permanent residents are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship five years after getting their green cards, Krikorian added, until they do apply, they are at best "prospective citizens" who deserve fewer privileges. "People need to understand that you don't get to decide who moves to America until you become an American."

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