Politics & Media
Jan 07, 2009, 04:13AM

Our Legal Immigrants Deserve Better

He has plenty of tough decisions ahead, but President Obama could make an immediately positive, popular move by tackling our country’s abhorrent legal immigration process.

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Photo by David Prior

It took 19 months, a few thousand dollars, multiple doctors’ visits, and the help of a private lawyer for my wife Justyna to finally live and work in the United States legally. Our story was enraging and expensive, but it’s sadly not unique; of all the problems facing our country right now, legal immigration is perhaps the most under-recognized and embarrassing, but it should also be one of the easiest to fix. And yet our government drags its feet on this issue, perpetuating a broken, money-sucking system that’s fundamentally un-American in its disdain for motivated foreigners. A wealth of complicated, divisive decisions await the president-elect, but he could make a positive mark early on by streamlining our legal immigration process and saving less fortunate families from the demoralizing maze my wife and I recently endured.

I met Justyna while studying abroad in London in 2005. She is Polish by birth but had been living, working, and attending school in the United Kingdom for over two years at the time. With only an easily obtained student visa, I enjoyed the same privileges, including England’s national health care system—a resource that proved especially useful when Justyna became pregnant in the spring of 2006.

We decided that I would return to America and finish my degree while she would go home to Poland to have the baby near her family. With the intention of bringing my wife to America after the birth of our child, I filed an I-129f Petition for Fiance(e) visa in October 2006. Thus began our protracted and degrading experience with the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The I-129f petition requires multiple copies of biographical information, passport photos, an affidavit of support including very personal financial information, a statement of intent, and proof that the intended parties have met before. It also costs hundreds of dollars. Once we had mailed the I-129f to Warsaw, my wife was summoned, despite the embassy’s knowledge that she was caring for a newborn, to take a six-hour train ride for a series of highly invasive medical checkups and interviews about her intentions, her relationship to me, and our daughter’s background. All this was required despite our thorough Polish documentation stating I was the father.

Once it became clear that my wife and daughter would be able to join me in the U.S., her sisters and mother applied for tourist visas to attend our wedding in June 2007. All five family members who applied were rejected. The USCIS’s Byzantine series of applications, interviews, and background checks is designed to ensure that every visa holder has sufficient impetus to eventually return to their home country. Yet even my mother-in-law, a 59-year-old Szczecin native who speaks no English, has never left Poland, owns an apartment, and has been married for over 30 years, was not allowed into the U.S. to witness her own daughter’s wedding.

We were married nonetheless, and subsequently began the Adjustment of Status process, which required us to resubmit many forms, my wife to undergo another biometrics exam, and another $1010. We sent the application to Chicago, only to receive notice that these cases were handled by the Nebraska office. Nebraska also sent it back, telling us to mail it to Chicago. We contacted a lawyer soon thereafter.

Legal counsel was a great help, but even the most knowledgeable bureaucratic Sherpa can’t anticipate the often bottomless depths of American governmental ineptitude. In July 2008, we received word that the Department of State needed another copy of Justyna’s medical forms, the very same ones we had already filed on two separate occasions. They admitted to losing it, yet still instructed us to complete the $300 checkup and documentation procedure ourselves, within 90 days. When I asked our lawyer whether an appeal could be made, he said of course, but the process would take longer than 90 days and Justyna’s entire file would be thrown out after that deadline.

If this sounds like a farce, it is. Here is a woman who has made the incomparable sacrifices of leaving her home country, her family, and her friends just to bring her new family together under one roof. The U.S. should be begging people like Justyna—who holds a master’s degree and desires only to work legally and pay the according taxes here—to live and raise their families within our borders, yet our government makes it humiliating and nearly impossible for them to do so.

Unfortunately, my wife and I are not an exceptional case, and a number of unsettling immigration-related national incidents concurred with our own struggles. In response to an early-2007 surge in citizenship applications, for example, USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez announced in February 2008 that thousands of files wouldn’t be reviewed in time for applicants to vote in the upcoming presidential election. They too were the victims of a mind-boggling bureaucracy that seems to view every would-be citizen and legal alien with scorn rather than welcome.

The efforts of public servants like California Rep. Zoe Lofgren to recapture these lost papers have also been routinely sabotaged by purportedly “pro-immigration” senators and congressmen who wish to impose even stricter limits on visa applications. A thoughtful New York Times editorial names a few of the more egregious hypocrites (including Iowa’s Steve King and Alabama’s Jeff Sessions) who insist that prospective Americans go through the proper immigration channels, then recommend making those channels even more difficult than the illegal options. A friend’s father once told me about a Polish man he employs, who initially came to America by flying to Mexico and floating across the Rio Grande like so many illegals before him. Years later, when Poland is now a longstanding member of the E.U., I still wouldn’t blame a citizen of that country for choosing to swim.

As a nation, we literally cannot afford to maintain a system that makes it so hard for people to come live and work here. We can already see the economic effects of this attitude: in 2007, before our current financial panic undoubtedly made the situation worse, the Times reported an 11-percent drop in British leisure and business travel to the United States since 2000, despite the remarkable strength of the pound over the dollar. The same article cites a study that blames “time-consuming and sometimes rude Customs and Immigration procedures at airports and a poor image of the United States abroad for an overall 17 percent decline in overseas travel to the United States since late 2001.”

A properly reformed legal immigration policy would positively affect American tourism, the economy, and help stem the flow of illegal immigrants that so frightens the more xenophobic congressmen and citizens among us. Democrats and Republicans alike (at least any non-hypocritical ones) would theoretically champion such reform, making it a worthy first step towards Obama’s much-promised bipartisanship. It would, in short, be a seemingly left-field but entirely appropriate first move for a president with Obama’s full plate—a move that would redefine America’s 21st-century attitude towards the rest of the world, allow for morale-building bipartisan consensus, and cut wasteful federal spending.

But regardless of the issue’s timely relationship to a current crisis, we must start honoring America’s origin as a nation of immigrants before the world’s travelers and workers simply find more welcoming destinations. My family’s particular situation, one which is hardly unique in 2009, would be better accommodated and respected in the U.K., and the option of moving back there seemed more ideal with every bureaucratic hurdle we jumped for nearly two years. How much longer can we reasonably expect people to fight for residency in a place that treats them so horribly?

A relatively easy national infrastructure improvement awaits President Obama and the new 111th Congress if they want it. Alternatively, they can allow xenophobia and hypocrisy to maintain their stranglehold on this issue, the continued mishandling of which is an embarrassment to all Americans whether they know it or not.

  • AMEN!!!!!!!!! I completely agree with this. For a long time, I was so fed up with the United States that I had planned to stay in France, where I studied abroad for two years as an undergraduate. Did you know that if you are a foreign national and attend a french university for two years, you can apply for citizenship? let me tell you, OH how i thought about doing it...

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  • Amen to that. Things are not better even after you are here with some Visa. At times, I used to contemplate (I'm an immigrant) simply going rogue and becoming undocumented than complying with the never ending bureaucratic tangles I had to go through just to maintain the status. On the other hand, I could have gone illegal and wait for amnesty. :)

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  • Marriage first, baby later might have made things easier. Nevertheless, this example of incompetence on top of wrongheadednes is one of several ways that my country (USofA) is an embarrassment to me now. Do we all know someone who would like to become a citizen but is put off by the obstacles? I do.

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  • Yeah, I guess I do know someone. What has happened to this country?

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  • I agree that the system is flawed and outdated. However, what system in the U.S. is not? To state that legal immigration is the most embarrassing problem facing the U.S. is absurd. The education system, U.S. diplomacy, the finacial crisis, are just a few issues that need far greater attention than immigration. Furthermore, to suggest that the immigration issue is an easy fix, displays a lack of understanding of the issues involved and existing problems.

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  • Landlord has a point that there are other things wrong. However, being married to a foreign national, my main response to the article is AMEN! also. We had 11 family members refused visas for our wedding. Tax problems in home country, someone's car was too old, my stepkids were of course not allowed to attend ... While other problems may indeed be pressing internally, I do agree that the way our gov't treats foreign nationals does an enormous amount to damage our reputation in the world. And they're nasty to us too! Choice of entry port for a family member who's a new LPR was based on avoiding DFW because of how **I'd** been treated there. I've done a fair amount of time abroad, been in a fair number of countries, never met treatment like the US dishes out. And yes, the bureaucracy is corrupt, incompetent, illogical (the ghosts of Kafka and Fibber McGee have to have collaborated) and very badly in need for reform.

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  • To be fair to the immigration system, i entered the US on a fiance visa, and was processed in less than six months. Then my green card arrived ahead of schedule. We didn't need a lawyer, just adds more money. However, it is down to luck sometime - losing papers etc, and we shouldn't have to pay two /three times for the same services. But from my point of view, the system worked fine.

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  • Change your diaper and stop crying. They are getting legal residence NOT a free ice cream cone. My wife and I did it ourselves, printed the paperwork online. We expected there to be a process-as there should be. Never ceases to amaze me typical journalist fill your diaper over anything!! Boo-hoo, the world's not perfect...Mommmmm-yyyyy

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  • What a ridiculous comment. John's article is far from "diaper-filling" and it makes a very good point. His story is pretty humbling and I would hate to have to go through what he and his wife did. Have a little respect, bud.

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  • (see item #37) LIST OF REASONS AMERICANS ARE UPSET ABOUT ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION: Anchor Babies (instant American citizens) Anti-American Attitudes Billions of $$ being sent out of our economy to their Home countries Census,illegals should not be counted but are which affects our distribution of representatives thereby directly affecting politics Civil rights,"The rights belonging to an individual by virtue of citizenship" not illegal aliens Child Endangerment Increased incidents of domestic violence Closed and Overcrowded Hospitals and Emergency Rooms Cost of Translators Consulates issueing Matricular card (ID they won't even accept) Day Labors Depreciated Wages Deterioration of Common American Culture Desecration of the American Flag Disrespect for American Laws Flying Mexican Flag above American Flag Gangs, Graffiti, Drugs, Cartels, Smugglers, and Violence High Birth Rates and Overpopulation Hit and Run is common in accidents with illegals driving Human Sex Slavery Identity Theft Increased Crime Increased Taxes for Americans Increased pressures on infrastructure (roads, traffic, water, sewer) Infectious Diseases Lost American Jobs Lost American Sovereignty Making demands of our elected officials Not Speaking English and loss of common language Overcrowded Schools and Negative Impact on American Education Overcrowded single family homes Overcrowded Jails and Prisons Press 1 for english Stolen American Taxpayer Resources Taking limited seats in colleges at taxpayer expense Terrorism Threats and Security Trash and Negative Impact on Environment Unfair to Legal Immigrants Unfair Business Competition Unlicensed and Uninsured Motorists Untaxed Wages Voter Fraud

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  • It's understandable that John Lingan is upset with his experience. Nevertheless, his essay is mostly a display of ignorance. First consider the picture of that famous statue at the top of his article. The statue's title is actually "Liberty Enlightening the World," and it has nothing to do with immigration, though lots of people have been fooled into thinking it does. The Emma Lazarus sonnet speaking of "huddled masses," etc. isn't part of the statue, having been added later, with no one's permission. Of course Lingan may not be the one responsible for the inclusion of the photo with his article, but this is still an important point –- pictures of that statue tend to arrest people's thoughts and replace them with unsupportable cliches. Second, we are NOT a "nation of immigrants." That's the greatest unsupportable cliche, and Lingan repeats it. In fact, the United States draws newcomers because our founders established a civil society wherein ordinary citizens can lead rewarding lives, not because legions of prior immigrants left unpromising situations to come here. And even if immigration had dominated American history, this shouldn't guide 21st century decisions now that our population exceeds the land's carrying capacity. Lingan also seems to think that his well-educated wife meets needs in our society beyond his own. In fact, well-educated Americans are being driven en masse from their jobs, especially in information technology, by outsourcing to India and China and by the massive importation of H-1B workers, whose main attractions to employers are that they'll work cheap and that they're effectively indentured. THE UNITED STATES SUFFERS NO SHORTAGE OF SKILLED WORKERS, AT ANY LEVEL. Finally, the crappy service provided by USCIS, of which Lingan complains, is due in large part to the incredible, crushing load of paperwork the agency receives from i) Foreign spouses and children of citizens and legal residents; ii) Extended foreign families (e.g. adult siblings and even parents) of citizens; iii) The annual visa lottery (millions of applications for 50,000 slots, giving away something as precious as U.S. legal residency to people chosen at random!!); iv) Refugee and asylum applications (95% of which are fraudulent); v) Visitors (e.g. international students). Legitimate clients of USCIS, such as Lingan, would be well-advised to get on board for a drastic reduction of legal immigration. It's what the country desperately needs. But even if he's not interested in the larger picture, he could improve the process for people like himself by supporting such reductions that would reduce the USCIS workload.

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  • I guess I identify with your wife. I have lived and worked here legally since 1998 in a field desperate for skilled workers. I realize that 12+ years is a heck of a long time. It is half of a life sentence for a capital crime. Our lives have been severely affected by the humiliation we are suffering at the hands of inept and dispassionate so called officials whose job it is to say NO. My story is horrific, my son was killed and my daughter told she was HIV+ by civil surgeons which is a death sentence, She is not thank G-d but it haunts her. She was 9 when we came here, now almost 22. My son was 19. I was not allowed to bury him. Whatever the USCIS problem are, they MUST repair it to establish trust in a system known far and wide as hateful and prejudiced. Thank you for sharing your story and I am delighted that you were able to finally attain some closure with your family.

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