By Julia Preston on 2/8/14
Many thousands of Americans seeking green cards for foreign spouses or other immediate relatives have been separated from them for a year or more because of swelling bureaucratic delays at a federal immigration agency in recent months.
The long waits came when the agency, Citizenship and Immigration Services, shifted attention and resources to a program President Obama started in 2012 to give deportation deferrals to young undocumented immigrants, according to administration officials and official data.
The trouble that American citizens have faced gaining permanent resident visas for their families raises questions about the agency’s priorities and its readiness to handle what could become a far bigger task. After Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said on Thursday that the House was not likely to act on an immigration overhaul this year, immigrant advocates are turning up their pressure on Mr. Obama to expand the deferral program to include many more of the 11.7 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Andrew Bachert is one citizen caught in the slowdown. After he moved back to this country in August for work, he thought he and his wife, who is Australian, would be settled by now in a new home in New York State, shoveling snow and adjusting to the winter chill. Instead his wife, Debra Bachert, is stranded, along with the couple’s two teenagers and two dogs, in a hastily rented house in Adelaide, where the temperature rose in January to 115 degrees.
At loose ends, Mr. Bachert, 48, spent Halloween and Thanksgiving without his wife and children, and he opened his Christmas presents for them himself — on a Skype call so at least they could see what he had gotten for them.
“I’m sitting over here on my own, and it’s unbearably hard,” Mr. Bachert said. At the current pace, Mrs. Bachert will probably not travel to the United States before August.
Until recently, an American could obtain a green card for a spouse, child or parent — probably the easiest document in the immigration system — in five months or less. But over the past year, waits for approvals of those resident visas stretched to 15 months, and more than 500,000 applications became stuck in the pipeline, playing havoc with international moves and children’s schools and keeping families apart.
“U.S. citizens petitioning for green cards for immediate relatives are a high, if not the highest, priority in the way Congress set up the immigration system,” said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the national bar association. “This is a problem that needs to be fixed quickly.”
Many Americans are awaiting visas for spouses they recently wed, including Mukul Varma, 31, a naturalized citizen who works as a software consultant near Chicago. On a trip to India to visit relatives, he fell in love with Neetika Gupta, 26, also a software engineer. They married in India in May.
“To be honest with you,” Mr. Varma said, “because I was a U.S. citizen I thought it would not be an issue to get a visa for my wife. I didn’t put any thought into it.”
In mid-January Mr. Varma flew back to India to see his bride for the first time in nine months. He applied for her green card soon after the wedding, and since then it has not advanced. Their plans to start their life together in this country are in disarray.
“First it was surprise,” Mr. Varma said. “Then dismay. Then it just becomes very discouraging. You feel helpless. You feel as if you did things the right way and you are penalized for it.”
Christopher S. Bentley, a Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, said the agency had seen “a temporary increase in processing times” for the citizens’ green card applications because of the deferrals program and “the standard ebb and flow” of visas.
Last year, officials said, the agency detected the problem and tried to speed up the green cards by spreading them out to three processing centers. In November, the agency reported it had reduced waits to 10 months, calling that a “significant step forward.” Officials said they hoped to reduce waits to five months, but not before this summer.
Because there are no annual limits on green cards for citizens’ immediate relatives, there are no systemic backlogs. But initial approvals are centralized at the immigration agency in the United States. After that step, generally the longest, the visas must also pass through the State Department and foreign consulates. The law prohibits foreigners who want to become residents from entering as tourists while their documents are in process.
After Mr. Obama announced the deferral program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in 2012, he gave Citizenship and Immigration Services only two months to get it running. Agency officials scrambled. As of last week, 521,815 youths had received deferrals, with the agency handling more than 2,000 applications a day.
The agency drew rare praise from immigrants and advocates for the efficiency of the program, which is highly popular among Latinos. It has been widely regarded as a successful dress rehearsal for a larger legalization.
But soon after the deferrals were underway, Americans with green card applications felt the impact.
“You end up seeing a steep decline in approvals for people like me who followed the law,” said Forrest Nabors, 47, a political science professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, who filed in July for a green card for his wife, Zdenka, who is Czech.
An immigration service center near Kansas City assigned to handle both the green card applications and many of the deferrals was rapidly overwhelmed, officials said. But although the agency is financed by fees and does not depend on congressional appropriations, no new employees were brought on at that center, because of “unanticipated hiring difficulties,” officials said, without elaborating.
For some families, prolonged separations have been especially hard on children. Jessica Veltstra, 32, applied in March for a green card for her husband of eight years, Andre, 41, who is Dutch. But he is still in the Netherlands, and she is rooming with relatives in New Jersey, unable to make plans.
Their older daughter, who is 4, refuses to speak to her father on the phone in Dutch, her first language, and bursts out crying when she sees a photo of him.
“My husband has done nothing wrong,” Ms. Veltstra said. “But they can do whatever they want because they have your spouse basically hostage.”
Mr. Bachert was so certain he would see his family soon when he left Australia last summer that his children, both American citizens, did not go to the airport to see him off. He had little doubt his wife would qualify: They have been married for 17 years, and she had a green card once before, when Mr. Bachert, who works with electric utilities, had an earlier job in the United States. But the document expired, and she could not renew it when they were living in Australia.
Some lawyers urged Mrs. Bachert to come as a tourist to join her husband. After deliberating for two sleepless weeks, she said, she decided she would rather bide her time apart than lie to American customs officials about her intentions to remain in the United States.
Mr. Bachert, who will eventually work in upstate New York but is camped out in a temporary apartment near his company’s headquarters in Hartford, said his lowest moment had been a frantic predawn phone call from his wife. Their son was in a hospital heading for emergency surgery after shattering his forearm and wrist in a bicycle fall. Two months later, Mr. Bachert shuddered to recall the episode, although his son’s bones have healed. “No parent,” he said, “should be separated from their family in periods such as that.”
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