US green card limbo: for one Filipino, a long wait

Arnulfo Babiera applied for a US green card a decade ago, in the hopes of reuniting with his sister, a naturalized citizen. But at the current rate, his wait could extend until 2027.

Foreigners seeking to immigrate to the United States under a family reunification program may however see changes on the horizon, with a new reform seeking to resolve the four million cases in limbo, like that of Babiera.

"That is my dream, going to the United States of America -- to earn more, to support my family here. My income would be greater than it is here," Babiera told AFP by telephone from his home in Davao, in the southern Philippines.

Babiera, a 58-year-old employee of a recruitment agency, earned the right to come to the United States when his sister Elizabeth filed a green card application on his behalf in 2003.

But US law places a cap on the number of green cards each year granted to a specific country to seven percent of the total. There are so many requests from China, Mexico, India and the Philippines that the wait seems endless.

Applications are handled in the order in which they are received. For Filipino siblings of US citizens, immigration authorities are now processing applications filed in October 1989. Babiera could be waiting another 14 years.

For Mexican brothers and sisters, authorities are looking at cases dating back to 1996. For the unmarried children of US citizens, the backlog dates to April 2006, no matter what the nationality.

"I'll be retired before he comes here, I think!" said 56-year-old Elizabeth Babiera, a nurse who lives in the Washington suburbs.

"I have nobody here. I see the other families, they have all their brothers and sisters here, and I envy them."

The Babiera family green card drama is the unfortunate consequence of a law that no longer corresponds to the reality of the flow of immigrants into the United States.

Madeleine Sumption, an expert at the Migration Policy Institute, notes that between 4.3 million and 4.7 million people have earned the right to live in the United States on a permanent basis, but have been unable to move here.

But a draft immigration reform bill unveiled earlier this month by a bipartisan group of US senators includes a clause that would speed up the processing of the family green card applications.

From late 2014, and by 2021, all pending green card petitions should be handled.

"The backlog is just not an efficient way to run an immigration system, and yet because the law has not changed for so long, it's become the defining characteristic of how the policy functions here," Sumption said.

For backers of immigration reform, it is inconceivable to even think about creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States before dealing with those who followed rules and waited at home.

"They are at the back of the line. Everyone who applied before them legally goes first," said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a co-author of the bill.

Whenever his green card comes through, Babiera will be one of the last foreigners to get one via a brother or sister.

The reform proposal, which will be debated in Congress in the coming months, calls for the sibling green card clause to be abandoned. Only children and spouses of US citizens and permanent residents will qualify.

US lawmakers henceforth want to prioritize immigration on the basis of employment, and not family ties.

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