Legal immigration means extended waits

October 13, 2006|By Oscar Avila | Oscar Avila,Chicago Tribune

Teodora Unlayao was a 34-year-old single woman when she applied in the Philippines for a U.S. visa to reunite with her sister in Glenview, Ill. Now the mother of a college student, Unlayao is almost 58.

And she is still waiting. Though she is eligible to immigrate to the U.S., only a limited number of Filipinos are admitted to rejoin their families each year. Demand worldwide is at least triple the supply, and the odds are much worse for Unlayao because she hails from a high-immigrant country.

"What can I do?" sighed her sister, Tiza Burke. "I'm just glad we're both still alive"

While lawmakers debate border fences and street marches back undocumented immigrants, the saga of would-be legal immigrants like Unlayao has languished with little attention. But the beleaguered system of legal immigration into America could soon become another flash point - albeit one with unconventional battle lines.

Asian-Americans have taken the lead in calling for a streamlined legal immigration system, because their relatives face the longest waits. They have joined forces with primarily Latino march organizers to make visa backlogs part of a pro-immigrant agenda.

The opposition to a streamlined system, meanwhile, comes not just from the usual critics of increased immigration. With the U.S. population set to top 300 million next week, according to the latest estimate of the Census Bureau, some environmentalists have renewed warnings that opening an immigrant pipeline will exacerbate population growth that harms the nation's ecological health.

About 55 percent of the 100 million residents added since 1967 have been legal and illegal immigrants and their U.S.-born offspring. The newcomers tend to have larger families. Hispanic mothers have birth rates 48 percent higher than non-Hispanic white mothers, for example.

Both sides say the debate will determine how the U.S. envisions itself in the coming century.

Immigrant advocates say the U.S. government is being hypocritical by touting family reunification as a guiding principle for immigration policy and then making that process interminable for many families.

A legal permanent resident who applies to bring a spouse from China today would wait an estimated seven years. A U.S. citizen must wait 11 years to bring a sibling from India.

Overall, the U.S. government received about 70,000 petitions for family-based visas in June alone. Based on 2005 allotments of visas, at that rate the government would exhaust its annual supply in less than five months.

The U.S. government also doles out a relatively small number of visas by lottery, to applicants who do not have family or employers as sponsors. But the lottery applies only to citizens of countries with relatively low levels of immigrants, leaving out much of Asia and Latin America.

"People are willing to put up with a lot to have their family close," said Tuyet Le, executive director of the Chicago-based Asian American Institute. "I think we've been able to move this issue pretty far because people see how basic to fairness it is to reform the system."

Le said she supports a bill, which passed the Senate, that would have started to clear the current backlogs. The bill died this summer after lawmakers failed to merge it with a competing House proposal.

Still, the momentum created by marches for legalization has reignited the push for reducing the visa backlogs. Le said it was important that the march organizers, mainly of Mexican descent, lend support for the backlog cause to win over Asians as members of the coalition.

The nonprofit Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has featured backlog horror stories in a continuing campaign to register naturalized citizens and mobilize them around immigration. The backlog ads were focused in Albany Park, West Ridge, Schaumburg and other areas with high Asian immigrant populations.

But there is also momentum on the opposing side, from those who criticize the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act for unleashing a wave of immigration from Asia and Latin America. That law revamped the immigration system and placed a priority on reuniting families.

Conservative lawmakers are pushing bills that would eliminate the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor their siblings for legal visas and abolish the visa lottery, eliminating two of the smaller channels of immigration.

Those lawmakers have found unconventional allies among liberal environmentalists.

Gaylord Nelson, the late U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and founder of Earth Day, preached that America had to reduce immigration to protect the environment. And with the Census Bureau's mid-range projections showing that the U.S. population will top 400 million in four decades, others have renewed that call.

"More people means more sprawl. It means more energy consumption," said Paul Watson, founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. "There are limits to growth. And for us not to address this issue, there is no logic to it."

Most mainstream environmental groups have not directly confronted the immigration issue. For years, the Sierra Club has voted against taking a formal position on immigration, although Watson and a handful of other candidates have successfully run for the board on a platform of reducing immigration.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a Washington-based group that wants to reduce immigration, said he hopes the 300 million milestone will help environmental groups connect the dots between legal immigration and a swell of population. While Beck said the U.S. can absorb 300 million residents, the population increase strains roads, water and other resources.

"If Al Gore or someone like that would say that we have to stabilize our population, I think this issue could come right to the fore. But you can't go into an environmental group and talk about reducing immigration without being accused of xenophobia or hardheartedness," Beck said.

Oscar Avila writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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