Some people seem to believe that for a Mexican immigrant to become a U.S. citizen and come here legally, all he needs to do is to sign some forms, pay a fee, and then wait a little while. "Eventually they'll have their day," these people say, "just like my grandparents, who came over from Europe in the early 1900s, and did it the right way."
But how long would you be willing to wait? 40 years? 80 years? Two full lifetimes?
Prakash Khatri, the nation's first Citizen and Immigration Services Ombudsman within the Department of Homeland Security, who served from 2003 to 2008, has crunched the government's own facts and figures, and has discovered it can take an average of more than 130 years for some Mexicans to receive a legal visa.
But Khatri is not talking about any ol' immigrant. He is zeroing in on those who already have a relative who is a U.S. citizen and want to reunite with family. The government supposedly provides a fast track for such applicants, but Khatri says it is anything but.
"If you look at the numbers," he tells Hair Balls, "any human being with any sense would say, 'I cannot wait two lifetimes. Why should I pay my fees to the immigration service just to get a piece of paper saying in 131 years I will be able to immigrate. It's ludicrous."
According to Khatri, if you were born in Mexico and are the sister or brother of a U.S. citizen, your sibling can file a petition for you and pay a several-hundred dollar fee. In return, he says, you will get a letter stating you have been put on a waiting list and to wait for a call.
Simple enough. But Khatri says that call may not come for a long, long time. The United States only grants so many immigrant visas each year to people from Mexico, says Khatri, and the volume of applications is overwhelming, meaning it can take decades for a single person to move up to the top of the list to get a visa.
According to Khatri's data, compiled using documents from the Department of State, it takes a Mexican brother or sister of a U.S. citizen an estimated 131 years to obtain an immigrant visa, based on the number of visas issued annually over the past five years. More than 618,000 currently approved applicants in this particular pool of people were waiting in line in 2009, Khatri says. The government has been issuing visas to these people, seeking to reunite with family, at an average of 4,724 a year over the past five years, he says.
The news is only slightly better if you are the married son or daughter of a U.S. citizen, for which the estimated number of years waiting is 46, or if you are the unmarried son or daughter of a U.S. citizen, for which the estimated wait is a mere 40 years.
Plus, says Khatri, if your sponsor/citizen-family member dies, you have to find a new sponsor and start all over again at the back of the line.
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Khatri blames the immigration quota system, which assigns the same number of visas to each country, regardless of population.
"Under the quota system, siblings and children of U.S. citizens born in most countries are able to immigrate to the United States in about 10 years, while Mexico-born relatives could wait up to 131 years," Khatri writes. "Given the choice of waiting more than 100 years for an immigrant visa that will never arrive or slipping illegally across the border to be reunited with family members, many Mexican immigrants have come to the obvious conclusion ... why wait?"
Khatri says he conducted his study to show that legislative reform is needed to speed up and unclog the immigration process, which would lead to less illegal immigration.
"We've got to get real," he says, "and people need to understand the reality of what our law is actually requiring of Mexican Nationals."