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In the debate over immigration reform, most seem to agree on this point: people who are now in the U.S. illegally should wait at the back of the line for legal residency. That means no green card until legal immigrants get theirs. But as NPR's Ted Robbins reports, that presents a problem because the wait for a green card can take decades.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Maria has been waiting in line with her husband for a long time. You originally applied in 1997.

MARIA: 1997.

ROBBINS: Now it's 2013.

MARIA: Mm-hmm. We waiting for, like, 16 year.

ROBBINS: Sixteen years and counting for what the government calls a priority date for legal residency. Because she is in the U.S. without documents, Maria asked us to use only her first name. Her story, though, is typical. Maria's mother-in-law is a U.S. citizen, so Maria's husband, who was born in Mexico, is eligible for a green card. While he's waiting, he's in the U.S. illegally, running a small construction business and, says Maria, paying taxes.

When her husband gets his green card, Maria can apply for one. But their lawyer, Mo Goldman, says it'll be a while longer before those 1997 applicants are eligible.

MO GOLDMAN: The date that they're currently processing right now is back to 1993, and it doesn't move.

ROBBINS: In other words, grown Mexican-born sons and daughters of U.S. citizens are at the front of the line for permanent legal residency after applying two decades ago. Different family categories have different lines. Spouses wait less time than siblings. Different job categories have different lines. College graduates wait less time than lower skilled workers.

HIROSHI MOTOMURA: So it turns out there are many lines.

ROBBINS: Hiroshi Motomura is a law professor at UCLA, who's writing a book on the immigration system.

MOTOMURA: There is something certainly questionable in the logic of a system that, on the one hand, says you qualify, but you have to wait 20 years.

ROBBINS: Lawyer Mo Goldman says it isn't the way it was a century ago when immigrants came through Ellis Island.

GOLDMAN: It's apples and oranges. There's no way of comparing that because we didn't have this quota system. People got off a boat, processed through, they got their medical examination, and then, you know, they became permanent residents.

ROBBINS: That's if you were from Europe. If not, it was tough to immigrate even back then. So in the 1960s, Congress tried to make things more fair by granting an equal number of green cards for each country. So there are country quotas now on top of all those family unemployment categories. But some countries are larger than others or, as Hiroshi Motomura says, they have more people who want to immigrate because of geography or political and economic ties.

MOTOMURA: And right now, those countries are China, India, Mexico and the Philippines. So if you're from those countries, you have to wait longer.

ROBBINS: The total estimated backlog for legal immigration is 4 million people. Motomura thinks that long wait may have fueled illegal immigration. That's what Stuart Anderson thinks too. He was an immigration official during the George W. Bush administration. Now, he's with the nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy, a Virginia think tank. Anderson says people who need jobs or want to join family won't endure a two-decade wait.

STUART ANDERSON: The combination of that with increase in border enforcement has led people to come in illegally and then end up staying once they got into the country because it's become more difficult to cross in the first place.

ROBBINS: Which brings us back to Maria and her husband from Mexico. They crossed and stayed in Tucson illegally at the same time his mother applied for him to live here legally. And here's the kicker: Their lawyer, Mo Goldman, says if they do leave the U.S. and get caught coming back, the law automatically adds another 10 years to their wait.

GOLDMAN: Have you been unable to attend weddings, funerals, anything like that?

MARIA: I stay here for - I never come back to Mexico. And my grandfathers, they died, and it's too hard.

ROBBINS: Maria and her husband are not about to lose their place in line even if they don't know how long the line is. It's why almost everyone pushing immigration reform says any new law has to ease the current backlog of legal green card applicants before putting the estimated 11 million undocumented in line behind them.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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