A few weeks ago, my life irrevocably changed forever when I received my green card and became a legal permanent resident of the United States. The transition from a “non-resident alien” to an “official resident” was fraught with challenges, and involved an incredible amount of hard work. The stressful load of our uncertain legal status fell apart the minute my family received our green cards, and we could not help but feel a weird mixture of disbelief and happiness.
As immigrants from one of the most populous countries in the world, I knew that our path to citizenship would take a long time. Despite being the second largest immigrant group in the United States, Indian immigrants are less likely to have naturalized citizenship than other immigrants. This can be attributed to the quota system adopted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that prevents more than 7 percent of visas in a particular category from being granted to people from any one country. Unfortunately, this creates a uniquely unjust system that equalizes quotas from countries as small as Monaco to countries that are basically continents, such as China or India.
Furthermore, immigration laws have abysmal implementation rates, as evidenced by the nearly five million people waiting in the green card application backlog. It is estimated to take decades to process all their papers, and there are 675,000 applicants who will die before receiving a stable legal status in the United States. Additionally, USCIS classifies immigrants based on their “employment preference categories,” in other words, their skill and education levels. As my mother is classified as a highly educated and highly skilled worker, my family managed to file our green card application in the EB1 category (priority workers), thus allowing us to receive legal resident status in two years. This is not the norm for the average Indian immigrant who is expected to wait nearly fifty years before they achieve stability and safety in this country.
To add insult to injury, an average green card application costs nearly $2,000 per person, which can round out to $10,000 for a family of four. Spending that much money on an application that has between a 6 to 50% chance of getting rejected is a financially challenging prospect, especially for low and middle income earners. While a green card is in processing, immigrants are also discouraged from traveling abroad, on the off-chance that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection decides to deport them upon their return to a U.S. airport. This meant that while my friends were getting excited for their fall semester, I was getting stressed out about my impending trip to Scotland for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and the overwhelming fear that I would get deported to India upon my arrival in JFK. With the help of my local Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, I was preparing an official petition to the federal government when my family received a notification that our green cards were ready.
The immigration system is more than just a simple dichotomy between maintaining law and order versus welcoming immigrants from all backgrounds. Other variables play a role, especially the legal system which is convoluted and vague, while also exhibiting cruel and arbitrary enforcement. An advisor from the International Student & Scholar Services recounted the experience of one international student at UConn on an F1 visa, who was arrested because his roommate covered up the smoke detector in their room. While this might seem like a simple misdemeanor, a black mark on the student’s records can mar his immigration prospects for life. Legal immigrants in college are also prohibited from partaking in internships, paid or unpaid, and are often limited from working for more than twenty hours a week and can be deported if they do so.
Predictably, while legal immigraton brings its own plethora of problems to the table, illegal immigrants suffer far more at the hands of our legal code. An infamous story that details the cruelty of the immigration system is the tale of ten-year old Rosa Maria Hernandez who crossed the national border to go to a hospital in Texas for emergency gallbladder surgery when she was arrested by ICE agents two days after her recovery. Stories like this advance the widespread publicity of the troubles of illegal immigrants, and can help build empathy for their struggles.
However, the radio silence on the issues of legal immigrants prevents the average Joe from truly understanding the difficulty of incentivizing illegal “aliens” to come into this country legally, when the legal side of the immigration coin is equally messy and unjust. The visual roadmap in this article details just how convoluted legal immigration can be and imagine adding to this the incredible stress of waiting for confirmation from a centralized federal government that seems like a disconnected, slow-moving and inhumane system. That is the reality of the immigration process – a cruel, never ending waiting game for the illusory stability of permanent residence.