Anger raged at a July protest in Oracle, Arizona. The reality is that paths to legal immigration are limited and backlogged.

Story highlights

"Get in line" is a common refrain in the immigration debate

But for some, the wait for a green card is up to two decades long

Many families live separated while they wait for a visa

Paths to legal immigration are limited and backlogged in what some call a broken system

CNN  — 

In the debate over immigration, there’s a common refrain from people who oppose a path to residency for undocumented immigrants: “Why don’t they get in line?”

But don’t tell that to Yesenia. She has been waiting in line for a green card for 17 years.

Paths for legal immigration to the United States are limited and backlogged in a system that, until recently, aimed to retain the racial status quo of the country, say immigration reform advocates.

That system, they say, offers only a few avenues for legal immigration. And those who apply through legal channels, like Yesenia, often find themselves waiting for residency for an extraordinary number of years.

Many spend those years separated from their loved ones, in contradiction with one of the primary aims of U.S. immigration laws: family reunification.

Both advocates and foes of looser immigration controls agree America’s immigration laws – complex and often unwieldy – need to change.

“The immigration system – yeah, it doesn’t work very well. It lets in too many people, from my perspective,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tightening immigration to the United States.

But Yesenia doesn’t see it that way.

With Congress deadlocked on the contentious issue, Yesenia and other immigration reform advocates placed their hope with President Barack Obama and his publicly stated intention to take executive action.

Along with taking action on the undocumented, Obama could increase the number of employment-based green cards available to highly skilled workers. Technology companies have been pressuring the White House to raise the cap.

Other reform advocates have been lobbying the President to address the long wait times in the family-sponsored green card system, which would affect people like Yesenia.

But much to the disappointment of reform proponents, Obama said last weekend that he would wait until after the November elections to take any action.

“The President’s latest broken promise is another slap to the face of the Latino and immigrant community,” said Cristina Jiminez of the immigrant youth organization United We Dream.

For now, it means immigrants like Yesenia will have to keep waiting.

‘I need to get out of this darkness’

Yesenia has always held to one belief: If you do good things in life, good things will come to you.

So she keeps a smile on her face as she wakes up before the sun ascends over Los Angeles, gets herself ready and climbs into the driver’s seat of the school bus she drives more than 50 miles a day. She hasn’t missed a single day of work this year.

At 37, she is a working single mom. She’s hardly rich but has managed to eke out a life for herself and her two daughters. She has never looked back on the day that her parents brought her over the border from Mexico.

She was 12 then, the youngest of nine siblings. They were already in this country. Her father wanted them to have a better life than the one he had in Mexico.

There’s just one dark cloud hanging over her life.

Everyone in her family became U.S. citizens or permanent residents. But Yesenia is still waiting.

One of her sisters sponsored her for permanent residency, or a green card, in 1997. The latest State Department visa bulletin indicates that Mexicans sponsored by a sibling who filed by January 22, 1997, are just now having their applications considered. Yesenia, who asked that her full name be withheld because she is undocumented, hopes she will receive a call soon for an interview.

“I have waited for a long time,” she said. “I need a break. I need to get out of this darkness.”

She came close to deportation once but found relief through Obama’s executive order on prosecutorial discretion in 2012. Removal proceedings against her were canceled because she arrived in America as a child, has lived here for 24 years and now has two children who are U.S. citizens.

“I have a lot more peace of mind now,” she said. “But it’s frustrating. I also understand it’s the law.”

More than 23 years of waiting

There are only a few ways immigrants can become permanent residents of America.

They can be sponsored by an employer or a family member such as a parent, a spouse or a sibling who has permanent status in the United States.

They can enter the country as refugees fleeing violence, hardship and persecution or seek asylum on those same grounds.

And lastly, they could be one of 50,000 lucky recipients of diversity green cards doled out in a lottery each year.

But the system, say immigration experts, is outdated and overwhelmed beyond belief. That’s why people like Yesenia have been waiting so long.

According to the State Department’s latest visa bulletin, the Filipino brother or sister of a U.S. citizen would have to have applied for a permanent residency by March 1991 in order to have his/her application processed now. That’s more than 23 years of waiting.

“It’s all so broken,” said Alma Rosa Nieto, Yesenia’s attorney in Los Angeles. “So when people say ‘Get in line,’ it’s a statement of ignorance of the law and the system.”

The four countries with the longest wait times for family- and employer-sponsored visa applications are Mexico, India, China and the Philippines.

That’s because the limits on green cards are the same for large countries like Mexico as they are for small countries like Denmark.

Each year, the United States grants 226,000 family-sponsored green cards. The limit for employer-sponsored permanent visas is 140,000. The law prescribes a per-country limit at 7% of the total.

“The country caps are undoubtedly prejudicial to larger countries,” said Matthew Kolodziej, legislative fellow at the American Immigration Council, a Washington advocacy organization.

“That does have consequences. And it is unfair,” Kolodziej said.

Atlantan Senthil Muhtukumarasamy wants to follow the law, but the immigration process is overwhelming.

In 2012, for instance, 1,316,118 Mexican citizens applied for permanent residency. But the cap that year was 47,250.

“It’s a matter of supply and demand,” said attorney Romy Kapoor, an Atlanta attorney who has many clients who have been waiting for years for their application to move forward. “There is a very limited supply and a huge demand.”

But increasing the supply doesn’t necessarily mean the demand will be met, said Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.

“Advocates are trying to sell you a bill of goods,” he said. “They need to acknowledge what they are calling for is unlimited immigration.”

Krikorian acknowledged it’s a mistake to make someone wait that long for a visa. He said the system should allow for unlimited immigration but only for a few categories of people. Only the highest skilled job applicants should be given permanent visas, he said. And people should not be allowed to sponsor their siblings.

“Brothers and sisters is one of the worst categories – it drives an endless chain migration,” Krikorian said.

Elimination of that category would end the green card quest for people like Yesenia.

But the wait times for spouses and young children of U.S. citizens have also increased. That’s the one category for family-sponsored visas that even conservatives agree should be green-lighted.

Many blame Obama’s 2012 executive action granting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which deferred deportations against certain people who came to America as children.

“They took people off other immigration processing and put them on DACA,” said Krikorian. “So it dramatically increased wait times for spouses.”

One of Kapoor’s clients is Senthil Muhtukumarasamy, a 40-year-old businessman from India who has a green card, returned home and got married in 2011. The next year, his wife gave birth to a son. He has been waiting for three years for the United States to clear residency for his family so they can join him in Atlanta.

He has three children from a previous marriage and cannot leave them behind to visit India for extended periods.

“I feel terrible,” he said. “I feel like half a dad to all my kids. I don’t want two separate families. I want them to know each other.”

His wife applied for a tourist visa but was denied since she has an application in for a permanent visa. Many people who get frustrated with long visa wait times have entered the United States as tourists and then overstayed their visas.

“I’m not big on breaking the law,” Muhtukumarasamy said, “That undermines someone who is trying to come in legally, like my family. But the process should be quicker. Sometimes, this is just overwhelming.”

After 25 years, still no right to stay

The tight curbs on visas can encourage illegal immigration, say some experts.

Most of the employer-based visas, for example, are reserved for high-skilled workers. They are not an option for Mexicans or others looking for jobs in construction, landscaping and agriculture.

Jorge Placido’s brother filed a petition to help him get a green card in 2005. Placido came from Mexico and has been living and working in the United States for two decades.

His daughter is a U.S. citizen; she was born here. But he has many years to go before he will become documented. The U.S. government is only now considering Mexicans who were sponsored by siblings by June 1997.

Placido, 48, can’t buy a house or finance a car or own a business. He cannot even return items to a store without showing a California driver’s license. He lives and works under the radar.

“I love this country,” he said, “but sometimes, I feel like a nobody. We undocumented people are not bad people. We want to work hard. We want to contribute.”

Yesenia, too, worries that little will change, and the next president will reverse Obama’s actions that gave her relief. She has been in the United States for 25 years and still does not have a right to stay.

“I have been working since I was 16, paying my taxes,” she said. “It’s surreal to me. At any moment, they can tell me to leave.”

She tries not to get angry or frustrated. She focuses on the positive aspects of her life. And hopes that her turn will come soon.

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