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Legal Immigrants Hope for Relaxation of Rules


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


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.


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.