Immigration Reform 2013: How Long Does It Take Immigrants to Earn the American Dream?

As a business visa holder and a legal permanent resident applicant, the White House’s draft for immigration reform that USA Today recently scooped, strikes a personal chord.

The plan attempts to reduce protracted waiting times by temporarily increasing the number of visas available, and lift some of the numerical caps on certain visa categories. The proposal would also give illegal immigrants provisional legal status with a “Lawful Prospective Immigrant” visa. This would make the path to legal permanent residency (LPR) — the first step towards citizenship — possible within eight years after the application submission date, instead of the existing waiting times that can span over decades.

This is especially promising for undocumented immigrants who are currently trapped behind a daunting backlog. NPR recently interviewed “Maria,” an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, who is still waiting to hear about her LPR status after filing for it 16 years ago. Illegal immigrants from high-volume countries like Mexico are especially hit by the “line” — USCIS is only now processing applications from 1993. My own application — as a legal immigrant on an existing business visa — is projected to take a minimum of five years to seven years to process. Given the indefinite near-decade it might take for certain legal immigrant visas to go through, it’s no wonder the line for undocumented immigrants isn’t getting any shorter.

What upsets Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is that the White House proposal offers amnesty to whom the GOP regard primarily as lawbreakers, and only secondarily as migrants searching for a better life. They also target the proposal’s lack of specificity on border security, which is the pillar of the GOP’s proposed immigration solution. In the so-called “Gang of Seven” document drafted by Rubio and seven other senators, ensuring that the road is tough for illegal immigrants is first on the legislative agenda:

Our legislation will provide a tough, fair, and practical roadmap to address the status of unauthorized immigrants in the United States that is contingent upon our success in securing our borders and addressing visa overstays.

While Rubio offers a protectionist strategy, his focus is only on part of the problem: immigration and emigration. He misses the exigencies of the illegal 11 million already presiding in the U.S. — that the system is broken not just because of lack of border security, but also because of a grossly inefficient and bureaucratic visa processing system, which perpetuates undocumented peoples’ illegality.

If Rubio and the GOP truly do believe as they articulate as the second pillar — that their reform would “better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families” — then they shouldn’t scorn Obama's draft proposal as “dead on arrival” because (not withstanding the fact that many of Obama’s points are similar, if not the same ones that Rubio makes in his document):

- It does indeed call for an unspecified increase in border control and would allow the Department of Homeland Security to invest in better compliance technologies;

- It would add 140 new immigration judges to speed up the backlog of existing cases;

- It would expand the E-Verify program, which monitors the legal status of employees;

The plan also proposes that Customs and Border Protection consider a land-border crossing fee, which would help offset border security costs.

Beyond these points, the White House’s draft proposal also digs to eradicate the root of why processing times are so long in the first place. Instead of making people like “Maria” wait even longer — longer for the day she can visit her family in Mexico whom she hasn’t seen in 16 years for fear of losing her spot in line by leaving the U.S. — Obama’s proposal promises to eliminate backlogs for family-based visas. This means increasing the numerical cap from 7% to 15%, freeing space in line for legal immigrants, which, in turn, makes the line shorter for processing visas for illegal immigrants. For example, the White House draft would create new visa categories that reward high academic achievement (especially to those with advanced STEM diplomas), which diffuses the backlog, and would frame an immigrant’s entry into the country as an opportunity to contribute to the nation’s economy and diversity.

But both Rubio and Obama have further to look beyond just border security and adjusting the number of visas. The Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) recently struck a partnership that proposes to offer closer evaluation of America’s labor market needs, which tackles another component of the immigration issue: jobs.

Their joint statement calls for an independent professional bureau that would provide up-to-date statistics on job openings so that USCIS might better maximize the number of working visas available to which category of immigrants. They also propose a new kind of worker visa program that would provide easier mobility for workers under permanent temporary status (a H1-B “Special Occupations” business holder, like myself, fall under this category since H1-B holders must express intent to leave the country upon completion of a business contract; but the visa is eligible for renewal) to achieve LPR and citizenship. The document also emphasizes and ensures that lawful American citizens would have the first crack at discovering available jobs through the proposed independent professional bureau.

If there is a true bipartisan desire to impart immigration reform in a way that would indeed, “build the American economy and strengthen American families,” then both parties better rise above the politicking. The “Gang of Seven” document, in reality, doesn’t stray too far from Obama’s White House draft proposal. Both Rubio and the White House need to start highlighting the common ground they share in order to make the U.S. an easier place to earn the American dream. Because in my book, 16 years — or even eight, if Obama’s plan passes Congress — is a long time to be working under the table and apart from family.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Yumi Araki

Yumi Araki is studying politics at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and was previously an editorial intern at Talking Points Memo and the associate producer at a documentary company specializing in covering science, technology and medicine. She is also a writer and digital storyteller who has published pieces in her hometown of Tokyo, her dream hometown of London, and her current home in Boston. Visit her at www.yumiaraki.com.

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