Former Mexican citizen Ernesto Rosas (left) and former Indian citizens Simon Mascarenhas and George Varghese take the oath of citizenship during a June 24 naturalization ceremony at the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City.
Former Mexican citizen Ernesto Rosas (left) and former Indian citizens Simon Mascarenhas and George Varghese take the oath of citizenship during a June 24 naturalization ceremony at the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City. Credit: Paul Hellstern / The Oklahoman

Give me your brilliant, your rich, your highly educated citizens — but not too many please.

Those words will never resonate with Americans like the oft-quoted line in the 1883 Statue of Liberty poem by Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

They do, however, come much closer to describing the United States ’ official policy toward immigration today.

Video clip:  Attaining American Dream

U.S. immigration laws are a patchwork quilt of preference categories and numerical caps that can ease the way for people like scientists, star athletes, and wealthy entrepreneurs to immigrate to the United States, while leaving unskilled laborers who are desperate for work sitting in lines for years.

Americans who wonder why so many illegal immigrants sneak across the border rather than filing the paperwork necessary to immigrate the legal way probably don’t understand how difficult and lengthy a process legal immigration can be, said Oklahoma City immigration attorneys T. Douglas Stump and Michael Brooks-Jimenez.

The process can sometimes take years — even for people who have the special talents, skills or family connections to give them a place in the preference lines, Stump said.

There are U.S. residents who have relatives living in Mexico who have been waiting 18 years to have their immigration requests processed, the attorneys said.

“The lines are long and they do nothing but get longer,” Stump said.

In 2010, a total of 1,042,625 immigrants obtained their green cards to become legal permanent residents of the United States , according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics.

That year, 691,003 immigrants entered the country through family-sponsored programs, 148,343 through the employment-based preference system and lesser numbers through diversity, refugee, asylum and other smaller programs, records show.

Preference categories and caps exist in both employment-based immigration law and family-based immigration law, Stump said.

For example, in employment-based immigration law, there is a preference category for outstanding professors and researchers, multinational executives and managers, and foreigners with extraordinary ability in the arts, sciences, education, business or athletics who have proven their talents through national or international recognition or extensive documentation.

The U.S. allocates 40,000 visas to immigrants within that category.

Other preference categories reward potential immigrants with advanced degrees, exceptional abilities, professionals, skilled workers in short supply, ministers, religious workers and wealthy individuals willing to invest at least $1 million in urban areas or $500,000 in smaller towns to create at least 10 jobs for non-family members.

Migrant workers would fall within a preference category for people coming to the U.S. to perform unskilled labor for which qualified workers are not available. The number of those visas is limited to 10,000 a year.

It is U.S. public policy to try to keep families of U.S. citizens together, so there is no cap placed on the number of spouses or minor, unmarried children of U.S. citizens who can legally immigrate each year. There also is no cap on the number of parents of adult U.S. citizens allowed to immigrate.

However, various preference categories do place caps on the numbers of unmarried and married adult children of U.S. citizens, brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and spouses, minor children and unmarried adult children of permanent residents who can immigrate.

The number of individuals allowed to immigrate to the U.S. from any particular country is limited to 7 percent of the visas granted.

That can lead to long waiting lists in countries like Mexico , India and China where there are large numbers of individuals who want to immigrate to the U.S.

For example, there currently is an 18-year backlog for the adult, unmarried Mexican sons and daughters of U.S. citizens who initiate paperwork to immigrate to the United States , Stump said. For married Mexican sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, the backlog is nearly 19 years.

There are also five-year backlogs for professionals with advanced degrees from India and China who want to immigrate to the U.S. to work in fields like information technology and bioengineering, he said.

“It’s an antiquated system,” Stump said. “It’s collapsing down around us. That’s why this country is losing its edge in the world’s race for the development of new technology.”

Stump said many people believe the U.S. economy is having difficulty pulling out of the latest recession because this country no longer leads the world in the development of new technology. He blames immigration policy for contributing to the problem.

Brooks-Jimenez agreed the system is broken.

The south Oklahoma City attorney said the offices of immigration attorneys are overflowing with people from Mexico who are in this country illegally, but would be willing to pay thousands of dollars to become legal. In most cases, however, they would be required to go back to Mexico to apply for immigration. If they had been in the United States for more than a year, they are penalized by being forced to wait 10 years to apply. There are hardship waivers and exceptions under certain circumstances, so it is good to seek legal advice, but for many there are no easy answers, Brooks-Jimenez said.

Two employees of the South Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce have first-hand experience with the U.S. immigration process.

Ana Monjes,Ö the chamber’s business development and membership director, said she was born in Mexico.

She said her grandfather obtained U.S. legal permanent resident status under the amnesty program signed by President Ronald Reagan 24 years ago.

Monjes said she was able to obtain U.S. citizenship with very little difficulty when she was about 12 years old because her dad had become a U.S. citizen and her mother applied on behalf of other family members.

Later, Monjes said she was able to use her citizenship to help her new husband become a legal immigrant. Her husband was in the U.S. on a visitor’s visa when she met him, she said.

“I told him, ‘We’re not buying a house, we’re not having babies until you have that green card,” Monjes said.

It cost nearly $4,000, but her husband was able become a legal resident in about six months because they were married.

However, she said her mother’s brother has been trying for 10 years to immigrate to the United States and is still waiting.

“He’s still hopeful,” she said.

Fellow chamber employee Patricia Paes, who immigrated to the United States from Brazil, has about a decade of personal experience dealing with both employment-based and family-based immigration laws.

Paes said she came to Oklahoma on a student visa in 1996 to attend the University of Oklahoma and fell in love with the country.

After graduation, she went to work for the South Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce on a one-year practical training visa. During that year, she persuaded her boss to sponsor her so she could obtain a nonimmigrant visa that permitted her to continue to work for the chamber for the next three years.

“I said basically, if you want to, I can work for you the next three years. I cannot leave, but you can fire me at any time,” she said.

“He said, ‘It sounds like a good deal to me,’” she laughed.

Paes worked those three years, followed by two, three-year extensions — the maximum number allowed by law, she said. She still works there and holds the title program development director.

Paes said every three years she had to go back to Brazil to get her visa extension approved and stamped at a cost of about $3,000 for paperwork and attorney fees.

She said her employer also had to advertise her job each time to see if there was any qualified American citizen who wanted to apply, which created some anxiety.

Paes said her attorney advised her to initially seek the nonimmigrant employment visas rather than a permanent work visa because the former are easier to obtain.

Paes will never know if should could successfully have obtained a green card through employment-based law. She married a United States citizen in 2007 and said she chose to obtain her green card on that basis in 2010 because it is a much easier route.

Even for spouses, however, the granting of permanent resident status is not automatic. Immigration workers extensively question applicants to try to weed out sham marriages.

“They wanted to know why my husband and I had separate bank accounts,” Paes recalled.

Support our publication

Every day we strive to produce journalism that matters — stories that strengthen accountability and transparency, provide value and resonate with readers like you.

This work is essential to a better-informed community and a healthy democracy. But it isn’t possible without your support.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.