Martinez, who describes herself as “pure Filipino,” married an American soldier and, in 1989, left behind the younger brother and sister she raised with the promise she would sponsor their immigration to the United States as soon as she was able.
She was true to her word. The petition to sponsor her siblings’ immigration was approved, and their cases were given priority dates of Dec. 27, 1993. If you’re from the Philippines, you know this date bears no relation to the actual date you could be summoned. Demand for visas far exceeds supply. Martinez and her siblings expected it’d be late ’90s, early 2000s before anything happened.
What this leads Martinez to is a single thought in all this hubbub over what the president will or won’t do, can or can’t do: “What about us? What will you do for the ones who have been waiting in line and who have followed the rules? What is our priority?”
Immigrant rights and groups among the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans have been pushing the president to include in his executive action a remedy for the backlog in family-based visas that has grown to 4.3 million people. The backlog is greatest among those waiting in Mexico, but Asians and Pacific Islanders who make up just six percent of this country’s population, represent 40 percent of those waiting, says Erin Oshiro, a senior staff attorney who focuses on immigration and immigrant rights for the Washington-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
“If you look at category of visas for adult brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, Mexico has the greatest backlog, but the next six countries on the list after it are all Asian countries,” she says “It’s huge, and it’s an issue of having a limited numbers of visa available.”
The president’s exact plans are unclear, but the focus has been on what he will do for immigrants who are in the United States illegally. Reports are that he will offer millions of undocumented immigrants temporary permission to live and work in the United States. The protection will likely be limited to parents of U.S. citizen children or children who are lawful permanent residents as a way to keep families together.
That continued family unification would be the goal is something of a bitter pill for Martinez and other legal immigrants who question the president’s action in tones both plaintive and full of outrage.
You speak of separated families? What about ours? We have been apart so long we have passed from youth to middle-age from middle-age into old. Our children are men and women now, known to their cousins only through rare visits and Skype. Our grandchildren have grown up outside the grasp of our arms, the warmth of our kitchen, the range of our guidance.
The United States sets aside nearly half a million family-based visas a year. A little more than half are set aside for spouses and minor children of citizens, and if they use more, so be it. But a firm cap exists for those who have to share the remaining 226,000 visas, a group that includes immediate family members of lawful permanent residents and adult children or siblings of U.S. citizens. The 226,000 visas are divvied up according to family relationship and legal status. Caps are set for each category for each country.
What all that means to Martinez is that the Philippines is allocated 4,550 visas for adult siblings a year, and her brother and sister got into a line that has grown to 171,000 people.
Oshiro and others say one of the actions the president could take is to change how visas are counted. Martinez’s brother has two young children. When his number comes up, he will get three visas. Instead, advocates argue, one visa should be issued. Spouses and minor children, known in the torturous language of bureaucracy as “derivatives,” should be included under a single visa number. In the 2012 fiscal year, Oshiro says, the majority of visas set aside for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens were instead used by their spouses and minor children.
“The line would not be cleared overnight,” Oshiro says, “but it would move more quickly. More families would be reunited.”
This is a no-brainer for Martinez. “It should be one visa. It’s one family. I mean, a 20-year wait? Really?”
Martinez used to talk to her siblings about what it would be like to live together in the United States. Her sister could join the many Filipinos working as nurses. Her brother would work as a chef at her restaurant. But as the years passed her siblings spoke more about the opportunities their children would have rather than their own.
The wait angered her, at times, but “I can just cry all day, all night, and it’s not going to me any good. So, I just hope and pray that one day they’ll call or I’ll get a letter saying, ‘We’re coming.’”
Several years ago, her sister was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It appeared to go into remission but returned and could not be treated. Come see me, her sister said, but Martinez did not want to go because she thought if she did, her sister would die. Please, her sister said, and so Martinez did.
“I’m here,” she said, calling from the airport. “Wait for me.”
“Okay,” her sister replied. “Hurry.” Ligwa mu ne . . .ligwa mu . . .panayan daka.
“She died before I could get there,” Martinez says.
If she would have made it to the United States before she got sick, Martinez cannot help but think, maybe everything would have been different.