Legal Immigrants Hope for Relaxation of Rules

Legal foreign workers hope the immigration debate will lead to the relaxation of laws covering their status, and the status of their families. Many high-tech workers allowed into the United States have trouble finding a mate, or sustaining long-distance marriages. They hope changes in the law will make their private lives easier.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

President Bush tonight addresses the nation on immigration. He is expected to announce plans to send thousands of National Guard troops to secure the Mexican border. Some lawmakers, including Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, are skeptical.

Sen. CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): We've got National Guard members on their second, third and fourth tours in Iraq. We have stretched our military as thin as we have ever seen it in modern times. What in the world are we talking about here, sending a National Guard that we may not have any capacity to send down to protect borders? That's not their role.

YDSTIE: That's Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel on ABC's This Week. The Senate will pick up debate on immigration legislation in the next few days. Some legal immigrants are hoping senators will take a look at one particular part of the law. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

In late 2004, the Vinood Rajasakarin(ph) had his wedding all planned out. He was a high tech worker on a temporary visa, living in Northern California. His fiancé back in India was excitedly preparing to join him. Then in the you-can't-win-for-losing category, Rajasakarin's permanent visa came through in record time. That meant his fiancée, now wife, had to stay out of the U.S. while he petitioned for her visa.

Mr. VINOOD RAJASAKARIN: She was totally disappointed. She was like she didn't know what to say. It was a difficult time for her. I had to sit there and console here and say, yeah, I will try to spend as much time with you as I can.

LUDDEN: Temporary foreign workers can have their families with them. So if Rajasakarin had married even one day before he got his permanent visa or green card, the happy couple would be together. As it is, his wife can't even visit him here. The immigration agency doesn't trust spouses of green card holders to return home. And Rajasakarin can't just move to India. He would lose his U.S. residency and green card.

So he has quit his job and divides his time between India and a spare bachelor pad in Santa Clara.

Mr. RAJASAKARIN: I don't want to be separated from my wife, and at the same time, I don't want to lose my green card here.

LUDDEN: Ajit Natarajan(ph) says his friend is actually lucky. At least his wife went ahead with the wedding. He knows someone else in the same situation who got dumped.

Natarajan has founded Unitefamilies.org to help fellow foreign workers commiserate and lobby Congress. The problem is, there are millions of permanent residents in the U.S. trying to bring in relatives. But the system only grants several hundred thousand family visas a year. Natarajan says it can easily be five years or more for a permanent resident's spouse or children to make it to the U.S. He only found this out as he started trying to find a mate back home in India. To his dismay, the long immigration wait is now well known back there.

Mr. AJIT NATARAJAN: I've been looking. Since 2004, I've been looking. No success. It's very frustrating.

LUDDEN: You've made some overtures and the response has been?

Mr. NATARAJAN: The response has been, oh, you have a green card. Thank you very much. That's the start and the end of it.

LUDDEN: Natarajan says the U.S. sends a mixed message by telling foreign workers we want you but not your families.

Mr. NATARAJAN: There seems to be a basic contradiction here, and we would like our lawmakers to address this issue.

LUDDEN: Some in the Senate have. The sweeping immigration overhaul being debated there would exempt immediate families of permanent residents from annual visa caps. That would dramatically reduce waiting times. But Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies thinks it would be a mistake. He says it would essentially give green card holders the same rights as U.S. citizens to bring in families.

Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Center for Immigration Studies): You have to acknowledge that what that means is huge increases in immigration and loss of control over the immigration process, a delegating of immigration decisions to people who aren't even citizens yet, who are still guests here. And there is frankly a principle problem with that. I mean, that's one more erosion, one more chip away from the distinction between being a citizen and being a foreigner.

LUDDEN: The senate proposal would also substantially raise the quota on permanent residents. In all, Krikorian estimates that legal immigration would double, from one million people a year to two.

That could certainly help separated families reunite quicker, but Ajit Natarajin worries about the effect if Congress also allows millions of illegal immigrants to become permanent residents. Lawmakers have promised those already in line will be processed first, but Natarajin thinks whoever applies for a green card after such a massive legalization will face an even longer wait than today.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

YDSTIE: You can read about a family divided by the long wait for an entry visa at npr.org.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

A Family's Wait for U.S. Visas Spans Generations

Ana Lobo stands outside her house with her son Tristan

hide captionAna Sanchez Lobo stands outside her house with her 17-month-old son, Tristan. He was born during one of his father's visits home to the Philippines.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR
Ana Sanchez Lobo and her husband communicate regularly through a Web cam link.

hide captionAna Sanchez Lobo and her husband, Ramon Lobo, communicate regularly through a Web cam link. They haven't seen each other since January 2005.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR
Patrick Lobo, 5, plays with his younger brother, Tristan.

hide captionPatrick Lobo, 5, plays with his younger brother, Tristan. Patrick briefly lived with his father, Ramon, in California, but was sent back to the live in the Philippines so that he could spend his days with his mother instead of in a U.S. daycare.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR

WEB EXTRA: REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

The most remarkable thing about reporting a story on a divided Filipino family like the Lobos is how unremarkable it is in the Philippines. Human labor has become one of the country's main exports, an economic crutch it has come to rely on despite the hardships this mass migration imposes on its citizens.   

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reflects on the Filipino culture of overseas work in a Reporter's Notebook for NPR.org:

The United States admits nearly 1 million legal immigrants a year. Yet that's nowhere near the number of people who want to come. The vast majority of visas are for those joining family members. The system is so overwhelmed that families end up being divided for years while they wait for visas to become available.

Legislation in the Senate aims to cut these wait times by letting in many more legal immigrants each year. But there's been virtually no debate on that measure, as Congress focuses on illegal immigrants.

The Lobo family knows how long the wait can last. This Filipino family has endured two generations of separation to come to America.

Ramon Lobo's family moved to the United States in 1994. His father, Maximo Lobo, had worked for a U.S. air base in the Philippines, which made the family eligibile for a visa to move to the United States.

But Ramon Lobo couldn't join the rest of his family. Just as the Lobos' visas came through, Ramon, the eldest child, turned 21. That put him in a different category, with a much longer wait for a visa. After agonizing, Ramon Lobo's parents and two younger siblings moved to California, leaving Ramon behind in the family house.

Ramon Lobo and his parents thought it would be two or three years until his visa came through. But the wait stretched to nine years. And the separation was all the more difficult because U.S. law does not allow relatives abroad to even visit family in the United States once they've petitioned to live permanently in the United States. They are presumed to be at high risk for overstaying their visa. Even when Lobo's mother became ill with cancer, he was denied permission to visit her.

Lobo's permanent visa finally came through in 2003. He now lives with his family in Sacramento, in a tidy neighborhood of beige stucco ramblers, and works at the Department of Motor Vehicles. But Lobo also left his own family behind. By the time his visa came through, he and his longtime girlfriend, Ana, had had a 2-year-old boy, Patrick. He married Ana after his visa came through, but left her and his son behind to move to the United States.

Lobo has applied for his wife to join him in America. But for now, the couple communicates through a Web cam connection over the Internet. Also joining the conversation is Patrick, now 5, and Tristan, Ramon and Ana's 17-month-old son, who was conceived on one of his father's visits home to the Philippines.

Lobo talks about the cute things his baby son, Tristan, is doing now: dancing to the music on TV, trying to sing in church. Given that he's only flown back home twice in the past two-and-a-half years, he knows an impressive amount of detail about his children's daily lives. But to his great sadness, 5-year-old Patrick rarely wants to chat with him on the computer.

"It's hard sometimes," Lobo says. "But I guess it's his way of coping with it. It's like, you don't really miss somebody if you don't — try not to talk to him too much."

When Lobo first came to California, he brought Patrick with him. As a dependent, Patrick got traveling papers right away. But Lobo soon decided it was better for the child to be with his mother than in daycare while he worked. So a few months later, he took Patrick back to the Philippines. Thinking of it, Lobo's shoulders slump, and he pulls a blue striped handkerchief from his back pocket. He says he'll never be able to forget the end of that trip, when he left his son at the airport.

"The look on his face was the hard [part] to see," Lobo says. "You know the look on the kid, he's expecting that he's coming with me. Then, he started crying when I gave him to my wife."

Lobo says he could barely make himself get on the plane. But he just kept thinking: There is no future for us in the Philippines.

Ana Sanchez Lobo and her sons live in Ramon's parent's home, about an hour north of Manila, along with one of her uncles and a housemaid. Old Lobo family portraits from when Ramon was a child still hang on the walls.

For all their distance, Ramon and Ana Lobo keep up the mundane chit chat of married life through their regular Web cam sessions.

She tells him about a movie he should see — "You'll go back to being a teenager," she says. She sees her sister-in-law on the Web cam and asks if she's lost weight.

While Ramon has battled loneliness in America, Ana has had to navigate some cultural pitfalls. When she became pregnant the first time, the two could not marry — that would have forced Ramon to start his visa process all over. But the Philippines is deeply Catholic. So, they faked a wedding. They bought rings. Ramon faked a wedding photo on his computer. Even their closest relatives didn't know.

"I don't [tell] them the truth," Sanchez Lobo recalls. "I keep on lying, we're married, we're civilly married."

But Sanchez Lobo was a nurse at the time, and that was a problem. Nurses in the Philippines sign an oath to be role models. The hospital kept asking to see her marriage certificate. She quit her job. Now, she lives on the money Ramon sends from California.

Ana, Ramon and their children have lived this separated family life for two-and-a-half years. And according to the visa bulletin the U.S. government sends out each month, the wait could be another four years. Sanchez Lobo says the hardest part is explaining it all to Patrick. She focuses on Ramon's next visit, in December. But Patrick can't grasp how far away that is.

"He keep on asking me every day, 'Mama, what's next, what's next after May? What's next after June? What's next?' Until we reach December," Sanchez Lobo says.

In the front courtyard, Ana shoots a video of the boys playing so that Ramon will have a record of some of what he's missing.

Ramon Lobo thinks the United States should be more flexible with families. He wonders why loved ones can't wait together in America while visas are being processed. He points out the economics. Just think of the millions of dollars he and others send to their families overseas, instead of spending it in the United States. More importantly, he worries about the social cost.

"A family is the foundation for any country," Lobo says. "If you have bad families, you won't produce good citizens."

Ramon Lobo's parents had hoped to welcome the rest of their family to the United States. But recently, his mother died of her cancer.

Now, Ramon and Ana are planning out his next visit to the Philippines. He'll stay three or four weeks.

"Any longer would make it harder to leave," Lobo says. "This way, they won't really get used to my being there. It'll be just like a dream."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: