Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why ‘Waiting In Line’ For Legal Immigration Status Can Take Years

Nicole Nixon
Isabel Cueva stands in front of her naturalization certificate in her Salt Lake City home.

When Isabel Cueva was eight years old, she illegally crossed the border from Mexico into the United States. Six years later, she became a U.S. citizen.

“Through my dad,” she said. “He was here in the 1980s and he was able to get residency through the Reagan amnesty. So, if it wasn’t for him, I would be an undocumented individual today.”

As a citizen, Cueva was able to go to college and get a law degree, which she now uses to help other people navigate the country’s complicated immigration system. She has her own law office in Salt Lake City.

'People will say, 'Well, just get in line. Just apply, just submit the paperwork. Why don't you just do it the right way' But there is no way.' — Isabel Cueva, Salt Lake City Immigration Lawyer

A common refrain among critics like President Trump is that people who want legal status in the U.S. should just go through the process, do the paperwork.

“We want people to come into our country, but they have to come into our country legally and properly vetted, and in a manner that serves the national interest,” Trump said at a campaign rally in 2016.  

But according to Cueva, it’s not that simple.

“A lot of people living in the United States without status, they don’t have any options,” she said. “People will say, ‘Well, just get in line. Just apply, just submit the paperwork. Why don’t you just do it the right way?’ But there is no way. There’s no possibility for a lot of these people here.”

How Legal Immigration Works

The most common way to legally immigrate to the United States is to have a family member who is a U.S. citizen or who already has legal residency. This is what’s often referred to as family based, or as conservatives sometimes call it, “chain migration.” In that category, Cueva explains that it’s easiest if your sponsor is already a citizen.

Credit Dept. of Homeland Security
Latest lawful permanent residents statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.

Citizens can petition for their parents, spouses and minor children who are citizens of another country. “If you fall under that category,” Cueva said, “then it’s a very streamlined process compared to the other types of visas.”

But it can still take up to a year and half. People who are not U.S. citizens but have legal residency in the U.S. have fewer options. They can only petition for their spouse or children under the age of 21.

Either way, the State Department’s system is so backlogged that waiting in line can take years.

“Just as an example,” said Cueva, “if you’re a U.S. citizen and you have a son or daughter who’s in Mexico, that visa is going to take over 20 years.”  

Immigration officials are still working on Mexican visa applications from 1996.  Other countries like India, China and the Philippines have years-long backlogs, too.

There are other ways to get to the United States, like through employer-sponsored visas or a green card lottery. But they’re harder to get, and there are fewer of them. There are a lot of people who still fall through the cracks, Cueva said.

'Because she has a U.S. citizen daughter, doesn't that give her the opportunity to apply for something, some kind of legal status? And unfortunately, the answer is no.' - Cueva

Just last week, a man reached out to her on behalf of his friend, who’s undocumented, from El Salvador, and has a daughter who was born in the United States.

“This is his friend,” Cueva said.  “He’s saying, ‘She’s very scared that she’s going to be apprehended, she’s going to be deported. What’s going to happen to her little daughter? Because she has a U.S. citizen daughter, doesn’t that give her the opportunity to apply for something, some kind of legal status?’ And unfortunately, the answer is no. That doesn’t entitle you to any kind of benefit.”

Anxiety among undocumented immigrants and the people who care about them, like the man that emailed Isabel Cueva, is heightened under President Trump. And the path forward for them doesn’t seem to be getting any clearer.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.