By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
"I can guarantee it is indeed the priority of the Immigration Service that while immigrants are detained, they are entitled to legal rights and are detained for a minimal amount of time," she says. "We don't want to deprive someone of freedom, and we have to pay an average of between $55 and $75 per day."
Three weeks was enough time for Hyder and Betsy to lose their new home. Because Hyder wasn't working during that time and the Hasans had to hire an attorney, they could not make their mortgage payments. While Hyder was detained, Betsy and the three girls moved into her brother's trailer.
"People say it was only 22 days, that it was a short time, but if we don't have him, we don't have a family," Betsy says, starting to weep. "What can you do when you don't know if your husband is coming back for a long time?"
This month, half a year after Hyder was arrested -- and after his attorney, Peter Williamson, wrote letters to the INS urging the agency to look at Hyder's record and see that it had made a mistake -- the case was dropped.
Williamson says when he began practicing law nearly three decades ago he would take applicants to green card interviews and the INS would make a decision that same day. These days it takes six months to process a green card application in Seattle, more than a year in New York, and a year and a half in Los Angeles. And in Houston, it takes more than three and a half years.
Under the Clinton administration, the INS has emphasized naturalization -- or citizenship -- leaving fewer resources to process green cards. Still, other offices in diverse cities like Miami and New York don't take nearly as long to process applications as the Houston office.
"When you start thinking about it, four years is a long time. Why, it wasn't more than four years for Pearl Harbor and the Japanese to surrender," Williamson says. "Marriages fall apart. People have arguments; they reconcile. People die. All sorts of things can happen."
If spouses divorce or the American spouse dies during the wait, the applicant can be disqualified. For that reason, victims of spousal abuse may choose to remain in abusive relationships and wait for their green cards rather than be forced to leave the country.
In the case of Rehana Asis, the delay prevents her from ever seeing her mother again. Rehana's husband visited Houston in the '80s and liked it so much that he stayed, leaving his family in Pakistan. After he obtained his green card, Rehana and her children were eligible to apply for theirs as well. But applications for relatives of permanent residents take longer to process than those of relatives of citizens. First, Rehana's husband would have to file a petition for her. Only after that was approved could she file for a green card. The whole process could take more than eight years, and Rehana did not want her children to grow up without seeing their father.
So she and the children came to Houston in 1990 on a tourist visa and have not returned to Pakistan since. Even though she stayed after the visa expired, Rehana, as an immediate relative of a permanent resident, can apply for a green card while living in America because she entered the country legally. In 1997 Rehana filed for permanent residency. Last year she learned her mother was dying from liver cancer.
"I'm afraid she pass away," she says in careful English. "They say the cancer is all over the liver and they can do nothing for her, nothing."
However, her travel application, known as advance parole, was denied because of strict laws passed in 1996 that bar people from re-entering the United States for three or ten years, depending on how long they have been "unlawfully present" in America.
Because Rehana overstayed her tourist visa, leaving the country would trigger the ten-year bar. Rejecting travel requests for applicants who fall under this bar is for their own good, Melero-Chami says.
"To ensure that the individual does not fall under this mandatory bar, we'd much rather -- and I think it's a responsible thing to do -- deny parole if the person will fall under this rule," she says. "Obviously that person may not be able to partake of family emergencies or celebrations. It is indeed in the best interest of the individual."
Those who leave the country and find they are barred from re-entry can apply for a waiver at the American consulate in their native country. The INS office in Juarez, Mexico, routinely grants waivers, approving more than 90 percent of them. But other consulates are not as generous. Depending on which consulate it is, it could take months, even a year, for the waiver to be approved, if at all.
Williamson says the Houston district office could issue a waiver that allows Rehana to travel, but Melero-Chami says waivers apply only to those who have left the country. As long as Rehana remains in America, the bar has not been triggered. "You cannot attempt to waiver what is about to happen," Melero-Chami says.