JULY 2003

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Waiting for A Green Card

By Larry Tung

Shirley Le went on a journey to pursue her American dream when she arrived in California in 1997 on a business visa.

A native of Shanghai, China, Le was hoping to get sponsorship from her sister's company in Los Angeles, which later fell through. Reluctantly, she went back to school and got a master's degree in computer science at the end of 2000, when the information technology industry started to go down.

"The future is so uncertain," said Le, who is a computer instructor at a two-year business college in Queens with a work permit sponsored by her employer. "I don't know if I will get a green card or not. All I can do is wait for the day when I get it." With her pending application, she has not been back home since 1997 because of the fear that she might not be able to return.

Le is one of the hundreds of thousands of green card applicants from China who are counting the days before they receive the document that sets them free. As immigration processing experiences an unprecedented delay in the midst of a major economic downturn and heightened security, the wait is likely to get longer and the chance of getting approved is slimmer.

In the past decade, it has become more difficult to get a green card and visa to work, live or study in the United States. According to Allan Wernick, director of the Citizenship and Naturalization Project of the City University of New York who writes a weekly immigration column for New York Daily News, the procedure to get a green card remains pretty much the same but the wait has become longer.

"The volume of applicants has increased tremendously in the past decade," Wernick said, citing a sharp increase in the early 1990s. "But the INS did not respond by increasing personnel."

The INS, or the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has been renamed Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services earlier this year, and is governed by the recently established Department of Homeland Security.

The deteriorating economy, Wernick said, has also made it more difficult to get a green card or work visa because the INS is well aware of the rising unemployment rate.

"They are more careful and critical now," Wernick said.

The September 11 attacks also came as a major hurdle for those who are seeking permanent residency, shattering their dreams of getting their green cards sooner.

"I am worried that immigration law would change drastically after 911," Le said. "I try not to think about it too much but I do hope that things would be stabilized."

"But I have to get it because I cannot be on a work permit forever," Le said. The work permit, also known as the H1-B, is valid for three years and can only be renewed once.

For those who came from countries with fundamental political differences with the United States, seeking political asylum is a shortcut to a green card if applications are planned carefully.

John Qiao, a native of Jiangsu Province, China, took his chance in seeking political asylum upon his 1998 arrival on a business visa and got a temporary green card within a year. He won the case with the claim that he has different political opinion from the Chinese government.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, a person who is persecuted or who has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is able to remain free in the United States. China is one the countries that filed most asylum applications in the world, with more than 10,000 new claims last year.

"I have explored many different ways to get a green card," said Qiao, a former marketing specialist with a college degree and a family business. "Political asylum is subject to personal interpretation and four or five out of 10 applicants got approved."

"I did what I had to do to get what I wanted," he said.

While political asylum is popular among the well-educated applicants since their educational background fits better as a dissident, people from the countryside with little formal education would try the traditional way - paper marriage.

Mo Chen, a car service driver from Fujian, China who obtained a green card through his father's sponsorship when he was a teenager, said paper marriage is common among his fellow Fujanese immigrants. According to New LIFE (Lutheran Initiative for Empowerment) Center, a program sponsored by the Lutheran Disaster Response of New York, there are roughly about 80,000 to 100,000 Fujianese residing in New York City.

"It costs a lot but many people will borrow money to do it," said Chen, adding that the current market price is $65,000. "We Fujianese are hard workers. We will work our butt off to pay it back if given an opportunity."

However, the processing of applications sponsored through marriage has taken longer nowadays, and many applicants would rather file in China and wait for two years there until they are issued a green card. Chen said he might do it for the cash.

"I am single and have no attachment. I might just take advantage of the gift that is given by the U.S. government," Chen added.

Unlike most people who struggled to get legal status here, Vernon Goh got it easy. He won a green card in 1998 through the Diversity Lottery (DV) Program on a first try and was granted permanent residency within a year. Each year, the DL Program makes 50,000 immigrant visas available through a lottery to people who come from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

"I was really lucky," said Goh, who is a native of Malaysia and is ethnic Chinese. "I don't feel I belong in Malaysia and I was just waiting to get out." Malaysia is considered a moderate Muslim country and its one-third of the population are of Chinese ancestry.

"I felt like a second-class citizen in Malaysia and was really looking forward to starting my life all over again here," said Goh, who lives in Queens and works as a school administrator. "I moved straight to New York in December 1999 and fit right in."

Although most green card seekers do not have Goh's luck, many share his positive experience.

"Although I might have an easier life if I had stayed in China, living and working in America provided a lot of positive experience," Le said. "I am very grateful for the help that I got along the way."

"My family support my decision to come here," said John Qiao, who has not been back to China since his arrival. "It's relatively freer here and the business environment here might help me bring my businesses to the next level in the future."

Although it seems inevitable for the U. S. government to tighten immigration process, particularly after 911, some officials and immigration experts said none of these measures have been effective and that immigration should not be made so difficult. Mayor Bloomberg said in his weekly radio show last month that all illegal workers should be legalized.

"They'll become taxpayers," Bloomberg said. "They'll become productive members of society earlier."

"It's not serving the country well," Wernick said, adding that none of the restrictions have kept out undocumented workers, and workers with skills that are needed in the Unites States should be granted green cards without a long wait. "People are always going to go to a place where they can live a better life…It is better to legalize these people and allow them to be part of the system."

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