The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How long is the immigration ‘line’? As long as 24 years.

Both President Obama and the Senate's Gang of Eight agree: If undocumented immigrants want to get legal status, they'll have to "get in the back of the line" of those who've already gone through legal channels to immigrate to this country. But what is this line? And exactly how long is it?

There's no one line. There are many lines with wait times that vary wildly depending on the type of green card that a prospective immigrant is applying for, the number of visas available and his or her country of origin: For those applying for work visas because of their "extraordinary ability," including high-ranking professors and international business executives, there is virtually no wait time. By contrast, a brother or sister of a U.S. citizen from the Philippines applying for a family-sponsored visas may have been waiting 24 years, as those visas have been oversubscribed, according to the State Department's latest figures. (The wait times don't advance by one month every month, however, and the actual time in line often ends up being longer, explains Dan Kowalski, a Texas-based immigration lawyer.)

"There are so many different lines. It's very hard for people to understand that there are so many different categories and that each wait time is different," says Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Council.  As of November, there were 4.3 million people  on the wait list for family-based visas and 113,058 waiting for employment-based visas — nearly 4.5 million in the overall backlog. (There are also about 41,000 "diversity" visas allocated to those from countries with low admission rates.)

Despite the huge demand, however, the government routinely doesn't even give out all of the visas allocated in any given year, partly because of bureaucratic delays. According to the law, any pending visa that isn't closed out in a given fiscal year is "lost," and it must be counted toward the next year's allocation, explains Angelo Paparelli, a California-based immigration lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw LLP. Democrats have been pushing to recapture the visas that were "lost" to bureaucratic delays, which could amount to hundreds of thousands of additional visas, by some estimates.

All this has created a lot of pressure to reform the legal immigration system, from employers who've been clamoring to hire more immigrant workers, particularly in the STEM fields, as well as from families who've been split apart for years. What's more, the exceedingly long wait times have also fueled illegal immigration, either because immigrants come without authorization or overstay their visas while they wait in line.

This has led to considerable consensus between the parties about which reforms are necessary, but there's less consensus on how, specifically, to remake the system. Both parties want to make it easier for business to hire high-skilled immigrant workers. But where President Obama also has proposed eliminating country-based caps for employment-based visas and raising the country caps for family-based visas, Republicans has been less warm to such ideas: Senate Democrats recently eliminated the proposed recapture of visas for battered women in a recent bill as a concession to Republicans, for instance. And the bipartisan Senate gang so far discusses the need to reduce the backlog only in the most general terms.

Legislators are also raising the stakes for fixing the legal immigration system by tying it  directly to the fate of undocumented immigrants: Unless the line of legal immigration speeds up, the illegal immigrants will be languishing without citizenship, as well. While more resources could help cut some of the red tape slowing down the process, such measures alone wouldn't be enough to reduce the backlog in a meaningful way, says Giovagnoli. "At some level, you can't speed it up if Congress doesn't have more visas."

Immigration advocates worry that the promise of citizenship could end up being "in name only" for some undocumented immigrants. "Instead of dying in the desert, they might just die waiting to become permanent residents," concludes Paparelli.