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Waiting half a life for a green card: Families languish in immigration line

This article, the third in a series on the paths to citizenship, is part of NBC News’ special report “Immigration Nation,” an in-depth examination of immigration in America. 

For Sergio Garcia, the magic number is 25. That's how many years he will have waited for his green card if, as he estimates, he gets it in 2019.

Garcia, 36, is one of millions of immigrants seeking a green card, or legal permanent residency in the U.S., which he has called home for most of his life. His dad, a naturalized citizen from Mexico, sponsored him, and he was approved to begin the naturalization process in 1995 at age 17.

But like many other applicants, Garcia has to wait for a green card to become available since quotas limit the number given out annually. Authorities first told him it would take three to five years to reach his “priority date” – when he could start the five-year process of getting a green card.

“I was crying about that. I’m like … how am I going to survive five years without my documents?” he recalled recently from Durham, a community outside Chico, Calif. “Little did I know that almost 19 years later I would still be in the same shape. … You’re approved but just wait around … half of your life.”

Aspiring citizens like Garcia face decades-long waits, ever-changing laws and an unwieldy bureaucracy that leads applicants on an epic odyssey to the “American dream.”

As Congress prepares to unveil its long-awaited immigration reform, many would-be immigrants are hoping it provides a viable legal way for them to join their families in the U.S., with reasonable wait times they feel will discourage unlawful immigration.

The U.S. immigration system was refashioned in the mid-1960s to focus on family unification, though critics say it has hardly lived up to that ideal.

Now, applications for family-sponsored green cards represent the vast majority of requests for legal permanent U.S. residency: 4.3 million of the roughly 4.4 million applications on the waiting list as of November came from parents, adult/minor children, adult siblings or married couples, according to the State Department.

The previous national-origins-based system  was “very discriminatory” in prioritizing Europeans over Asians and Latin Americans, said Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000.

In a bid to provide an even-handed approach, limits were placed on how many family-sponsored and employment-based visas could be issued to immigrants from a single country. Today, that ceiling stands at 7 percent of the total. (There is an exception for spouses, minor children and parents of U.S. citizens, who go to the head of the line.)

But lengthy lines built up for countries with high numbers of applicants, such as Mexico, the Philippines, India and China, said Meissner, now head of the Migration Policy Institute’s U.S. immigration policy program.

“It’s become increasingly clear that this is just really a perverse set of outcomes that the people who thought about the ’65 act and passed it … wouldn’t have contemplated,” Meissner said. “To make family reunification be meaningful and make it be real, you just can’t have people waiting 20 years. I mean you shouldn’t even have spouses and children waiting two or three years.”

'Overpromising and under-delivering'

Some advocates of stricter immigration controls think these lines shouldn’t exist at all, saying family-sponsored green cards should only go to the minor children and spouses of U.S. citizens.

The waiting list “creates a political pressure for advocacy groups to demand higher caps,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C. “… They point to it and they say, ‘Look, this is unjust and we have to speed family immigration.’ It’s become a talking point.”

There is “no good answer” to cases like Garcia’s, he added.

“That’s the kind of thing that happens when you have a bad immigration policy that is jury-rigged and complicated and opaque,” he said. “The goal needs to be to define as clearly as possibly who gets in and then let everybody who qualifies in every year … and make clear that if you are the brother of a U.S. citizen there is no category for you, there is no line, so don’t get in it. The problem is overpromising and under-delivering.”

Garcia's story is in many ways typical of undocumented immigrant residents treading the family path to a green card, lawyers and experts say. His father had a green card but was not yet a U.S. citizen when he applied for his son, putting Garcia in a lower-priority category even though he was under 21 – the age when minor children become adults under U.S. immigration rules.

His dad became a citizen in 1999, which would have put Garcia on the fast track as the child of a U.S. citizen had he not turned 21 the previous year. Instead, he entered another line: unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens. Immigration is today handling those cases from Mexico dating to Aug. 1, 1993.

That may appear close to Garcia’s priority date of Nov. 18, 1994, but don’t be fooled, he said. The line crawls forward about one week a month, he said, “and sometimes it jumps back real fast and by a lot.”

In the meantime, Garcia said, he has lost college financial aid and job offers because he is undocumented. He said he would have probably returned to Mexico if he had known it would take so long.

“It’s probably been a month or two since I last ended up crying because sometimes this life does get to you,” he said. “It’s not living, it’s just surviving.”

Even for those on a seemingly smoother path, such as a foreigner marrying a U.S. citizen, the family route still can take years.

Married ... with complications

Jeanette Smith, a former immigration lawyer in Miami who once guided couples through the system, is at the next step in the process as she tries to win citizenship for her husband, Agustin Gonzalez, a Panamanian national: providing documentation and going through interviews with immigration officials.

Applicants have to provide a dossier that includes the results of a medical exam, an affidavit of support from the relative sponsor saying the applicant has sufficient means of financial support and is unlikely to become a public charge, and any military, court and prison records, plus original documents establishing family ties between the sponsor and the applicant.

Many applicants must do interviews with U.S. consular or embassy officials in their home country.

Married in 2009, Smith and Gonzalez, 41, have had two interviews with immigration officials and have submitted documents such as wills, powers of attorney and three years of joint tax returns.

The couple provided a wedding album, and affidavits from friends and co-workers attesting to their relationship, too.

But Gonzalez, who first came to the U.S. on a guest worker visa that expired, remains undocumented. Since the couple was married less than two years during their first immigration interview in 2009, he could only get a conditional green card that expired in January while they were awaiting the second interview, said Smith, 47, executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice.

It leaves Smith feeling scared that her husband could be deported, although judges can exercise discretion.

The immigration officer “has the ability to make a decision on whether my marriage is valid or not,” Smith said. “Who else in this world has the ability to do that other than the couple themselves?”

Though Smith knows she has more experience that helps her navigate the system, she said: “It’s difficult, I don’t think people realize it  …  People think that it’s some automatic process, and all your problems are solved. And it’s not.”

Some who make it through the process can still in the end be denied a green card for dozens of different reasons, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at New York University School of Law.

“This is an amazing story in people’s resilience at some level and it continues to show you how much appeal the U.S. green card still holds, that people are willing to put their lives on hold for prolonged periods of time,” he said.

Garcia has forged ahead despite the barriers. He graduated college and law school, and is leading a landmark case in California that could set a national precedent on whether undocumented immigrants can receive law licenses. In the meantime, he works as an independent legal aide.

He ultimately believes the wait will have been worth it.

“I still think this country is a great country and I think it will give me, in the end, a better future than I could have had in Mexico,” he said. “… I tell people my purpose in life at this point is to prove that the American dream is still alive and well.”

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More in the 'Immigration Nation' series

Through the obstacle course of immigration, many paths to citizenship

To get green cards, these immigrants must prove they are extraordinary

By the numbers: How America tallies its 11.1 million undocumented immigrants