By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Federal ceilings on the number of immigrants who can legally immigrate slow the process. Congress decides how many immigrants can legally be admitted each year, and no one country can account for more than 7 percent of the total number. The State Department, not the INS, ensures these immigration limits are adhered to. For nations that have a high volume of immigrants, such as Mexico and India, the 7 percent ceiling leads to long waiting periods before the INS even looks at an application.
Think of it this way: If you were in line for ice cream rather than for residency papers, you would have to wait several years before the State Department let you into the store to order, and you'd have to wait another two and a half to get your sundae.
Calculating how long it may take to obtain visas from the State Department is complicated. Categories and subdivisions based on who is petitioning for your papers, your age, and your marital status are taken into account. The first separation is based on whether you are coming into the U.S. as an employee or a relative. In most cases, employers can bring in workers much faster than a father can bring in his child.
Most undocumented students waiting for visas applied through relatives who petitioned on their behalf. Petitioners in family cases can be any relatives who are citizens or have residency papers. The more distant the relative, the longer the State Department wait.
U.S. immigration policy operates on a first-come-first-served basis, separating prospective immigrants by native country. Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos have separate categories because they have the highest number of immigrant petitioners. All other nationalities are placed into an "other" category.
The most important date to an immigrant is called the priority date, or the day when a legal resident asks the U.S. government to issue papers for a family member. Petitioners must provide proof of the relationship between themselves and the immigrant. They also must show that they earn enough money--currently $13,825 a year--to guarantee that they can support their kin if necessary. Each additional person requires $3,525 in annual income.
Priority dates become waiting-line numbers. Visualize an enormous line of immigrants waiting their turn, cards in their hands marked with a date. The earlier your date, the farther up in line you are. Sometimes the line moves fast, sometimes it doesn't move at all, depending on how many visas are processed by the State Department. The longest lines belong to immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines.
You are not allowed into the country legally while you wait your turn in the State Department's line, where waits of more than four years are not uncommon. Once your number comes up, the State Department clears the visa request and passes it to the INS, where a new wait begins as the agency processes residency papers.
The current average time it takes for the INS to issue papers for a family member is two and a half years, according to INS spokesperson Eyleen Schmidt. When the INS finally begins processing your request, however, you can enter the U.S. on a temporary visa, and you are safe from deportation.
The INS has two top priorities: enforcement of immigration laws (administering the Border Patrol, monitoring factories for illegal workers), and adjudication (processing those seeking entry).
Schmidt says that the INS has its hands full processing the flood of naturalization applications, which have tripled in number in recent years, thanks largely to amnesty granted to millions of illegal immigrants in 1986. The INS also was hit with a new federal law that allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for residency from U.S. soil. Between 1994 and 1998 immigrants could pay a $1,000 fine and apply for residency, removing the cost and hassle of traveling to your country of origin from the process. Since there was no risk in approaching an INS office as an illegal immigrant to apply for citizenship, the $1,000 fine served as an amnesty-for-one.
The change made it easier and cheaper for immigrants to apply and led to a boom in applicants. Schmidt says the INS witnessed an eightfold increase, from fiscal years 1994 to 1999, of the number of applicants for residency papers because of that law. The provision, part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, applies only to those illegal immigrants whose priority dates had come. The waiting period at the State Department level was the same, but immigrants who didn't want to pay for or risk a return to their native land were quicker to apply. The INS waiting period grew as the system bogged down.
The INS asked for more money and got some, but not nearly enough: It received a 50 percent increase in the adjudication budget. During the same time period they experienced a 200 percent increase in the total number of applications. There are currently 951,000 pending requests for cases like Flor's, up from 1994's figure of 121,000.
The INS had to prioritize. They chose to first clean their plate of citizenship applications, instituting a plan with an attendant budget increase to bring the time it took to become a citizen down to six months. The 33-month backlog residency-paper applicants were facing would stay that way.