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Sue Lani Madsen: If illegal immigration is in crisis, legal immigration is chronically ill

UPDATED: Fri., July 12, 2019

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes immigration – maybe. If illegal immigration is in crisis, legal immigration is chronically ill. Entering the U.S. legally isn’t easy, not even with an American spouse.

Audrey Wagner came from Australia in the late 1940s to visit her sister, a war bride who had emigrated to Reardan, Washington. Audrey met the man next door, married George on Christmas Eve and got a six-week extension on her visitor’s visa. Then she had to leave the country for a couple of months while her application for resident alien status was processed. A background check turned up a politically radical uncle back home, but we let her in anyway.

The process has become more intense and more invasive since then. The Olesons met while Lau was an exchange student at Davenport High School. Lau proposed in 2013, and the young couple started the Visa K application process. It allows an alien fiancé to enter the U.S. with the intent to marry within 90 days. It is not a fast track to legal Green Card status.

U.S. Immigration wanted the story of how they met, a scrapbook of photos and receipts proving they had been involved in each other’s lives, background on parents and grandparents, and proof of financial sponsorship lest Lau become a public burden. Two pastors wrote letters of support saying they would be financially responsible if necessary. It was expensive. “Every time we sent paperwork in, there was a fee for the paperwork and another fee for filing,” Brianna said.

Lau had to return to Denmark to wait, then travel to Sweden for an interview. He was required to pass a medical exam and be vaccinated to American standards. Brianna estimates it was 150 pages of paperwork and $3,500 in fees plus out-of-pocket expenses just to get to the wedding in August 2015. Oleson said she is frustrated with those who don’t do it legally but can understand. “It’s so expensive, and the system is not set up to be comprehensible. Shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer and all of these crazy extras to have your family together.” He finally received his permanent andrenewable Green Card this year.

Meliah and Michael Apa are high school sweethearts who met overseas at a missionary school, came to the U.S. for college and married last summer in Edwall, Washington. She is an American citizen, he is from Papua New Guinea. They’ve hired an attorney to help navigate the system from fiancé immigrant to legal resident alien. Meliah blogs about their experience at AnotherParadise.org. Their biggest challenge is bearing the expense of the process while Michael is not allowed to work without jeopardizing his application. It’s a classic Catch-22: Prove you can be self-supporting, but don’t get a job.

Susan Wilmoth did not go the attorney route in seeking legal status for her husband, estimating it would have been $5,000 to $10,000. Max was an Australian employee for a U.S. company, living in Spokane on a work visa when they met in the 1990s. It took patience to get his status changed to resident alien with a green card and eventually citizenship last year.

Wilmoth started with the fiance visa application, and recalled the first petty bureaucratic response. Getting the forms meant lunch hours waiting in line at the federal building, plodding through the paperwork, paying $8 to mail the packet with certified copies of everythingand adding a hefty check for the filing fee. She got it back with a note. The fee had gone up $5. Start over. With new forms. It cost taxpayers more in return mailing than the additional fee was worth.

In every case of legal immigration, somebody has to step up with an affidavit of support. New Green Card holders are barred from applying for any kind of government benefits or entitlements for 10 years. “Seeing people coming across the border getting free housing, free food, free medical care is frustrating to those of us who signed up to take responsibility for anything in any circumstances,” said Wilmoth. Like Oleson, Wilmoth is sympathetic and irked at the same time.

Comprehensive immigration reform needs to remove the barriers to the legal route. They are a wall as assuredly as any physical barrier along the southern border and an incentive to play games with the refugee and asylum process.