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Legal Immigrants Show Other Side of System

May 25, 2006

ATLANTA (AP) _ Working with illegal immigrants every day in a suburban Atlanta bank, Carlos Carbonell knows exactly where to go to buy a fake green card for his wife. Sometimes he thinks it would be much easier.

His wife, Valentina, has been stuck in their native Caracas, Venezuela, for four years because of backlogs in processing her green card application.

Carbonell believes in reforming U.S. immigration policy, but he and other legal immigrants who have been playing by the rules feel forgotten in the debate over possible amnesty for most of the estimated 12 million immigrants here illegally.

``They are putting as a priority illegal immigration, and legal immigrants are left out of the loop. It’s the curse of doing things right,″ he said. ``They think that the legal ones can wait _ hey!″

Even though they have loyalty to their immigrant origins, many legal immigrants also feel a twinge of resentment toward others who have broken the law, and they fear illegal migrants could complicate their own quest for citizenship.

Will the already backlogged system gridlock because of a surge in applications from illegal immigrants? Will those who jumped the Rio Grande jump in the line ahead of those who have spent an average of $10,000 and five years waiting to be granted permanent residency? Will legal immigrants feel the backlash from those who resent immigration without making status distinctions?

Commuting to his home in suburban Bethesda, Md., Francisco Gonzalez passes scores of busy Latino construction workers, most likely illegal immigrants from his native Mexico. To the 36-year-old Latin American studies professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, those immigrants’ presence is at once a humanitarian crisis to solve and a real threat to his own ability to stay in the country.

``Our morals are on the side of the illegals. The paradox is that if they’re legalized, the line of 8 millions will become 20 millions, and the green card, they’re going to give it to me when I’m ready to retire,″ Gonzalez said.

Depending on where applicants are from and whether they seek green cards based on employment, family or asylum, the wait can last more than a decade for the document, which allows an immigrant to stay in the U.S. permanently.

As of March, more than 754,000 green card applications were pending, including more than 180,000 that had been in process for more than six months and others that have been ``shelved″ because no visas are available for that category, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Chris Bentley.

Despite President Bush’s reassurance that illegal immigrants applying for citizenship would ``have to wait in line behind″ the legal ones, many immigrants worry that lawmakers will favor those who have more political clout.

Gonzalez and his British wife, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, are expecting their first child in September. Both want green cards. Gonzalez has to renew his temporary visa every year and is always terrified he will not be allowed to stay.

Many immigrants, knowing firsthand how difficult and expensive the immigration process is, see it as unrealistic for unskilled, uneducated workers. This ``class bias″ pushes many unskilled workers to come illegally, said Louis DeSipio, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

But the expense and uncertainty of the system also threaten many highly qualified professionals, spurring high-tech companies, universities and attorneys to lobby for a cheaper, quicker legal immigration system, lest the U.S. lose its global competitive edge.

``Every CEO needs to contact their elected representatives and say we need more visas or a workable guest-worker program,″ said Anton Mertens, an Atlanta immigration attorney who immigrated from Belgium and represents employers from across the country.

A small but vocal group of Latin American and other immigrants want to restrict all immigration, including many of the provisions that allowed them or their parents to move to the U.S.

``We should reduce legal immigration to the level so it’s not a strain on energy and the infrastructure. Why shouldn’t China take care of the Chinese?″ said Ling-Ling Yeh, a Chinese woman who immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 and later founded the Oakland, Calif.-based Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America.

Lupe Moreno’s father came from Mexico during a World War II guest-worker program, but she now resents being surrounded by Spanish-speaking Latino immigrants in her Santa Ana, Calif., neighborhood. She founded a group called Latino-Americans for Immigration Reform.

``We’ve been more than generous with everybody. Now we need to take control,″ she said.

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