LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We're hearing a lot about illegal immigration. But quietly, the Trump administration has been making changes to legal immigration to this country. Last weekend, we spoke with Democrats and Republicans. And one place they agreed was that the legal immigration system should be made easier.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVID PODURGIEL: Well, I would like a merit-based system. And I'd also like to see it streamlined.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
YVETTE MONTOYA: The process needs to be streamlined, and it needs to apply equally across the board.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But that's not what's happening. We spoke with Cheryl David, an immigration lawyer based in New York, about how the system has changed under the Trump administration. And she began by explaining what we mean when we talk about legal immigration.
CHERYL DAVID: We're talking about employment-based immigration and family-based immigration. So companies sponsoring people to come in to work in the United States, people coming in on temporary visas to work or visitors, students - that's legal immigration. And, of course, family-based is when family members are sponsoring their loved ones to come and live in this country.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, so that's green card, spouses waiting for visas, naturalization. A look on the government's citizenship and naturalization website shows wait times have jumped. So to become a citizen, it's gone from five months to 10 months. Immigrants married to U.S. citizens to get their green cards went from five months to 15 months. Entrepreneur visas have gone from 11 to 22 months. Does that sound consistent with what you're seeing?
DAVID: Unfortunately, it is quite consistent. And it's been very detrimental to families and to the economy, frankly.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's changed? Why is this happening now?
DAVID: A lot has changed. The president has signed numerous executive orders in the name of national security safety - the other notion of buy American, hire American. So everything is, you know, vetted more strongly than it was before, probably unnecessarily because we had some very good procedures in place. In October of 2017, the administration had indicated that we are now going to have to interview every applicant applying for a green card. So previously, employment-based cases, for the most part, weren't interviewed. Now they're in the queue for interviewing. So that's set family-based immigration back tremendously. The employment-based cases are generally going forward first. The family-based cases are taking, you know, back seat to those cases. And so, you know, more people are having to wait to get things processed. And we don't have the resources to do that. And again, it's probably not necessary.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So one thing is people having to go to these interviews. But what is actually happening in these interviews? Are people still being approved? Or has the burden of proof gotten higher, and so it is more complicated for people who are in this legal process?
DAVID: I will say for the employment-based realm, the cases that I have seen have been approved. And the reason is they're good cases. I mean, this notion that there's fraud in employment-based immigration is not true. And so many of these people have been here in nonimmigrant work visas before they've been vetted. So going through another interview to see whether they should be entitled to a green card - it's just a mechanical interview that's not necessary. They have been approved.
Marriage cases - you know, if it wasn't a real marriage case, they would have never been approved under any administration. So I wouldn't say at the interview level, it's harder. It's just delaying things. And frankly, it's really impacting people who want to work. So work authorizations are now taking between five and seven months - both the family and employment-based realm. So people who have jobs can't work. If they need to travel for emergency reasons or, you know, family events overseas, they can't do that.
But the interviews themselves, frankly, are moving quite smoothly, which, you know, lends credence to the notion that we've all been crying about - it's not necessary to interview everybody. So if the person is approved, you know, for the employment, the interview is just whether or not that person is a security threat, which is frankly done by fingerprints and doing internal background checks. Seeing the person face-to-face isn't going to make much of a difference and hasn't.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are fewer people trying to become immigrants now because of what has become a very public stance by this administration?
DAVID: I think that people still want to come, which I kind of find a little shocking. But employers are more reluctant to sponsor people because the process, especially in the employment-based green card realm or even for nonimmigrant visas in the H1-B categories - they've made it much harder for employers to want to sponsor somebody. They've made it much harder for employers to have applications approved. And so I think in the employment-based arena, I think employers have slowed down the process.
And then in the higher levels of entrepreneurs, you know, people who have money people who could, you know, make six figures here, you know, contribute to our country - if they're that good, then they don't need to be in the United States. If they don't feel that they're welcome here, then they can go other places. And if so, they're going to Canada or Europe. And a lot of people are looking into other options. My Canadian - my friends who are Canadian immigration lawyers have never been busier 'cause everybody, you know, is looking to go there.
This is going to be so detrimental to the United States, you know, a year from now, two years from now. I know the illegal immigration is heart-wrenching and - sort of you can understand it from a humane perspective. But what this is doing to our economy is going to be felt for years to come.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you walk me through one of your cases that illustrates this current moment?
DAVID: I'll tell you what I had yesterday. I had a small - a restaurant in rural Wisconsin who had applied for a cook to come to the United States. We went through a lot of work here in the U.S. to demonstrate that he couldn't get an Italian cook to work in this little town in Wisconsin, which is probably not unusual. We went through an extreme vetting process with the Department of Labor. And the case was approved and the client went yesterday for his interview at the consulate. The consular officer interviewed him for three hours, questioned how he could be a cook if he didn't live in Italy how, he could be an Italian cook if you've never been to Italy, wanted to know specifically how he made different types of pasta and whether, when he came to the U.S., it would be frozen or nonfrozen, et cetera, and now is sending the application back to revoke it - back to U.S. immigration - because they don't believe that he's qualified.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are you telling your clients these days.
DAVID: That's the - the hardest part about being an immigration lawyer right now is managing expectations because you kind of don't know what to say because every day, they change the - they move the goalposts, right? So, you know, a year and a half ago, when people came to me for family-based and marriage-based case, I would say, you should have an interview for your green card within a year. And now we hear - here we are a year later. My cases that I filed in April and May for marriage-based cases are still not called for an interview. You know, what I tell clients is this is the way it is today. Tomorrow, everything can change. And I can't predict what they'll do. They've changed things every day that that many of us never thought could change.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cheryl David is an immigration lawyer, and she joined us via Skype. Thank you so much.
DAVID: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.