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“Rethink Immigration” is a new blog series in which National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) staff, clients, and volunteers share their unique perspectives and specific recommendations on what Congress and the Obama administration must include in comprehensive immigration reform to create an inclusive, fair, and humane immigration system. The stories told here combine personal experiences of people impacted by immigration laws with NIJC’s unique legal expertise. We hope to show the profound impact that our country’s complex and outdated immigration laws and decades of draconian enforcement have had on everyone in our society. Click here to read more about NIJC’s principles and priorities for immigration reform.

A fairly common task that I perform at the National Immigrant Justice Center is renewing work permits for immigrant victims of domestic violence and their children. Almost every day I work with families who are doing whatever they can to follow the law and obtain the legal status they need to build stable lives in the United States. 
I have learned over the years that for my clients who are lucky enough to have access to some route to permanent residence, the end goal often stays just out of their reach. Even routine life decisions, like getting married or visiting family abroad, can result in significant detours or roadblocks. Even with the wide-reaching protections afforded to victims of domestic violence and their children, like my client Sandra*, citizenship seems elusive under our current laws.
And to those in Washington who argue that we can fix our immigration system by simply providing permission to work to those who are here without papers, without also creating a fast route to citizenship, I say this: A work permit alone is not enough to make our workers, families, and communities as strong as they need to be. Work permits absolutely help families economically. But Congress and the Obama administration need to build a new immigration system that recognizes the full humanity of our nation’s workforce and provides an efficient route to citizenship so we can keep families together physically and emotionally.
Sandra’s 20-Year Wait for Citizenship
Usually if a family member comes to my office to renew a work permit it’s because he or she has an approved petition under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Under VAWA, an abused immigrant whose spouse is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR) can file a petition for legal status without the abusive spouse getting involved. Once the VAWA self-petition is approved, the immigrant applicant and his or her children can get renewable work permits every year while they wait for visas to become available.
Sandra’s immigration story began when her mother, Julia, married her husband in 2002. He soon became abusive. In addition to physical and verbal abuse, he never filed the paperwork for Julia or her children to legalize their status. In May 2003, Julia’s husband left. NIJC filed Julia’s application for VAWA at the end of that year, and she was approved in 2004. Both Sandra and her older brother, Daniel, qualified to eventually become LPRs once their mom obtained her LPR status, or green card.
Here’s where the “get in line” concept got frustrating. Julia and her two children needed to wait for visas to become available before applying for green cards. At the time, both Julia and Sandra fell into in the "2A Mexico" preference category – for spouses of LPRs and their unmarried children under 21 years old. Right now, the wait for a visa is typically just over two years, but that could change next month – for better or for worse. (Read more about the visa preference system and wait times here.) For Julia, it took about five and a half years after her VAWA application was approved – until January 2010 – for  visas finally to became available. This was good news for Julia. She filed her application in April 2010 and became an LPR in July 2010. 
But while they waited for Julia's visa, Sandra had turned 21. The implications of this birthday were devastating.
Sandra moved from the "2A Mexico" preference category and joined Daniel in the "2B Mexico" category, which is designated for unmarried sons and daughters of LPRs who are older than 21. 
Because the wait time for this category is nearly 10 times longer than the 2A category, Sandra and Daniel’s wait to apply for green cards will last, according to current wait times, another 11 years. They will have each waited close to 20 years to become LPRs. And if Sandra and Daniel obtain that coveted green card, they will need to wait another five years before applying to become U.S. citizens.
So, what does this mean for Sandra, Daniel, and Julia? 
  • Sandra and Daniel cannot marry when they want, or they will lose their rights to file for green cards through their mother.
  • Neither Sandra nor Daniel can travel outside the United States unless they first obtain permission from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Typically, the government only grants permission in cases of emergency.
  • Neither Sandra nor Daniel can access federal financial aid for school. If they want to go to college, they will have to pay for it without the help of federal educational grants or loans. If they can't afford to go to college, they will be tied to lower-wage jobs that do not require degrees.
  • Sandra and Daniel are allowed to work only if they continue to renew their work permits each year. Each time, they must pay an application fee of $380. Assuming that filing fee doesn’t increase, Sandra and Daniel could each pay over $4,000 just to be able to work while they wait for green cards. (As an LPR, Julia just needs to renew her green card every 10 years. That application currently costs $450.)
Without green cards anywhere in the near future for Julia’s children, psychologically it’s just another way that someone else controls Julia’s fundamental right to raise a family: what they can or cannot do, who they can marry, where they can travel, what they can study. 
Building a Strong Society Requires More than Work Permits
The debate raging in Washington over immigration reform often treats workers as widgets. In economics, a widget is a hypothetical unit of measure used to discuss supply and demand. But workers are not widgets; they are people with real dreams, problems, and families.
Offering Sandra and Daniel only work permits, without an efficient road to citizenship, ignores their humanity and full potential as members of our society. 
As Congress and the Obama administration begin the process of rebuilding our immigration system, Sandra, like many of my clients, needs a new law that eliminates wait times, provides green cards more efficiently, and ensures families the basic freedom to choose how they live their lives and raise their children. Let’s use our American values to create a new immigration system that makes families and communities strong in body, mind, and spirit.
Joe Gietl is a Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited representative for the Immigrant Legal Defense Project at Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center.
*All names have been changed.