Image: Tien Bui
Julie Busch  /  AP file
Tien Bui can't take better assignments at Boeing until he gets citizenship — a process that is dragging along. “I’m just disappointed because I can’t broaden my options,” he says.
updated 6/25/2006 2:09:15 PM ET 2006-06-25T18:09:15

The latest fights over immigration have focused on who should get a place in line for a legal life in the United States. But the real agony, says Tien Bui, comes when you finally get in line.

Bui, who came to the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee and is now an engineer for Boeing Inc., can’t take the career-boosting position he’s been offered because his citizenship application is lodged somewhere inside the Department of Homeland Security. With green card in hand, Bui has waited patiently since 2003 for his fingerprints to clear background checks, a process that’s become more involved since Sept. 11.

But if Congress approves a new guest worker program, the overall waiting period for Bui and the millions of legal immigrants like him could grow even longer, says a report by the Government Accountability Office.

President Bush mandated that by September of this year, cases in DHS’s immigration backlog should be processed in six months or less, a deadline the agency is optimistic it can meet.

But a spider web of agencies — including the Department of Labor, the Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — are also involved in evaluating and approving legal immigration applications.

If there are more petitions to process, the overall delays could increase, experts say. At DHS alone, some skilled foreign workers must wait five years to apply for a green card, something American engineering companies say is harming their competitive edge.

“I truly think if Albert Einstein were in my office in 2006, he would be saying ’I’m going to Canada rather than wait any longer,”’ said Judy Bourdeau, a Kansas City immigration attorney who is filing employment petitions for several Fortune 500 companies.

Bui got his green card through his parents, who came to the U.S. as refugees, fleeing Vietnam once the communists took over. After excelling at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Boeing offered him a job. But each time his bosses have tapped him to work on the company’s exclusive defense contracts, Bui said he’s had to turn down the offer because he hasn’t yet been naturalized as a U.S. citizen, a requirement for the position.

“I believe I belong in the United States, because it’s the first country I really know,” said Bui, 28, a structural engineer in the company’s Everett, Wash. plant. “I’m just disappointed because I can’t broaden my options.”

That also has consequences for some American corporations. Overland Park, Kan.-based engineering firm Black & Veatch Corp. says it has lost skilled foreign workers because their employment-based immigration applications took so long to clear.

“(We’re) concerned about the delays in the system to obtain permanent residence for our workers,” said Vice President for Government Affairs Robert Riordan in a prepared statement. “For some, the wait is too long and they simply go somewhere else.”

Hiring a permanent foreign worker means first getting approval from the Department of Labor, which has to certify that the company tried to fill the position with a qualified American worker. Then, the employer turns in a petition for an alien worker with a division of Homeland Security called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS.

The employee files a separate application for permanent residency. But not everyone can immediately apply. As of July 2006, most foreign workers must wait nearly five years from the time the employer began the sponsorship process to file their paperwork, according to the Department of State web site.

“If any part of that pipeline slows down, then the whole thing slows down,” said Tony Edson, the agency’s deputy assistant secretary for visa services.

If the file clears those initial hurdles, then DHS sends the worker’s fingerprints to the FBI, beginning what Bui’s lawyer calls the “black hole” of the security check process. USCIS ultimately decides whether to grant the green card or citizenship.

As of February, the backlog at USCIS was 608,029 cases, including applications for green cards and naturalizations, said Bill Strassberger, a USCIS spokesman. He said that’s about half of what it was a year ago, and that the agency is hiring extra staff, shifting funds to backlogged offices and modernizing computer systems to meet the September deadline.

But at the Department of Labor, things appear to be moving more slowly. Inside two special warehouses in Dallas and Philadelphia, government employees are sifting through more than 300,000 old paper files, some of which are up to six years old, the most recent government figures show. That bottleneck won’t ease until September of next year, the agency estimates.

And according to a November 2005 study by the GAO, increasing the number of workers who can apply for guest worker status could bump up the immigration backlog unless the USCIS gets additional funding.

Cynthia Horne, a professor of international political economy at Seton Hall University, says American companies often try to postpone the lengthy approval process for green cards by bringing in skilled foreign workers on temporary visas called H1-Bs.

One Senate bill provision would raise the number of H1-Bs from 65,000 to 115,000. But that still won’t solve the problem for some American businesses, managers say, since to stay competitive they need to offer skilled foreign workers a path toward permanent residency.

Russian engineer Anatoly Loskutov, for instance, came to Kansas City about four years ago on an H1-B visa to design mass immunization tests for bird flu, and is now applying for a green card. His petition is mired somewhere in the Department of Labor, which means it hasn’t even gotten to USCIS or the FBI yet.

“It’s very difficult to consider that I could have to leave in the middle of the project without bringing it to a complete success,” Loskutov said. “Are we going to need to pack our stuff and move back to Russia? What about my daughter’s education? I’d just like to be more clear about my future.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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