Friday, June 18, 2004 | Inland Southern California | Sweeps spark visa debate | Inland Southern California | Inland News

Sweeps spark visa debate

IMMIGRATION: Some wait up to 15 years, but an expert notes jobs are open right now.
11:58 PM PDT on Thursday, June 17, 2004
By SHARYN OBSATZ / The Press-Enterprise

2.4 million -- Approved applicants waiting overseas for green cards

421,000 - Number of green cards available each year for most job- or family-sponsored applicants

4 to 22 years - Time on the waiting list for many family-sponsored green cards

8 million - Estimate of immigrants living illegally in the United States

275,000 - Yearly increase in the undocumented immigrant population


A new U.S. Border Patrol effort to detain and deport Inland area undocumented immigrants does nothing to fix the underlying causes of illegal immigration, according to several experts, immigrants and opponents of illegal immigration.

"It's not even a drop (in the bucket)... It doesn't even make sense," said Elliott Barkan, an immigration expert at Cal State San Bernardino. "Sometimes these people get back before the Border Patrol does."

U.S. immigration policies favor skilled workers or immediate family members of U.S. citizens and legal residents, said Barkan, a history and ethnic studies professor. Waiting for a visa can take 10 or 15 years.

But local farm, restaurant and construction businesses have jobs open right now for unskilled, low-wage laborers, he said. "People don't want to face up to the reality. Americans are afraid that if you did open the gates, America would become a Spanish Quebec."

Earlier this month, Border Patrol agents detained 150 immigrants during Ontario and Corona area sweeps. Last week, agents picked up 161 immigrants in Escondido. Most of the immigrants were from Mexico.

Enforcing the laws

The Border Patrol considers the sweeps effective, said Raul Martinez, a senior patrol agent with the Border Patrol's San Diego Sector.

Big picture issues, such as immigration policy and economic disparities, are beyond the Border Patrol's control, Martinez said. "We're strictly here to enforce the laws and do what we're sworn to do."

The problem is bigger than a few hundred immigrants, said Cherry Valley resident Allan McNew, who opposes illegal immigration.

The Mexican and U.S. governments have failed to change policies that encourage illegal immigration, he said.

McNew, 47, is a union lineman who builds and maintains power lines. He said he previously worked as a cement finisher and saw the wages driven down by illegal immigrants.

"Most of them I believe to be very decent people, but they beat down our wages and there's too many of them," he said. "I feel like I'm being dispossessed of my nation, my culture, my language and eventually my livelihood."

Many undocumented immigrants struggle unsuccessfully for decades to get legal visas, Moreno Valley businessman Arturo Nieto said.

Nieto, 42, tried for 18 years to get a green card through a bakery-sponsored work visa or through the 1986 amnesty. He was originally disqualified from the amnesty because he left the United States briefly to attend his dad's funeral in Mexico. Thanks to a class-action amnesty lawsuit, Nieto, his wife and four of their children now qualify for visas.

"It was difficult, it took a lot of patience," said Nieto, who owns the Panaderia and Taqueria Guadalajara in Moreno Valley.

Citizenship vs. residency

In the Inland area, nearly 1 out of every 5 people is foreign-born, according to the U.S. census. It's impossible to know how many of them are here illegally, Barkan said.

From fiscal year 1990 through fiscal year 2001, the U.S. government gave green cards to more than 203,000 immigrants who intended to live in the Inland counties, federal statistics show. But experts say many green card recipients were undocumented immigrants already living here who had qualified for the 1986 amnesty.

People sometimes confuse citizenship with legal U.S. residency, said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services. People must first get legal U.S. residency through a job sponsor, spouse, parent, sibling or child, she said.

Employers have to show they couldn't find a qualified U.S. applicant for the job, Rummery said. Family sponsors have to show incomes at 125 percent of the poverty line and pledge to support the applicant, she said.

"Many people don't have a family member or a prospective employer to petition for them," Rummery said.

An immigrant must have legal U.S. residency for five years to qualify for citizenship, she said. Immigrants married to U.S. citizens can apply for citizenship after three years, and immigrants in the military can apply immediately, she said.

Immigrants in the United States illegally cannot apply to legalize without first leaving the country and facing a 3-to-10 year ban on re-entry.

The U.S. offers temporary visas, called H-1B visas, to skilled workers, such as computer programmers. In the H-1B visa category, 98 percent of visa-holders have bachelor's degrees or higher, according to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services report. One-third of H-1B visa-holders were born in India.

Visa lottery
Barkan said every country in the world limits immigration. A century ago, the United States established criteria to exclude people from certain countries. Restrictions changed to prohibit people of particular ideologies, such as anarchists, Communists or terrorists. In the 1920s, people sought to stem the influx of unskilled laborers from Southern and Eastern Europe, including Italians, Greeks and Russians.

Today, most family- and employer-sponsored green cards are allotted so that no country receives more than 7 percent. After lobbying from Irish activists in the 1980s, the U.S. government established a diversity visa lottery, which raffles off 50,000 visas to people from countries that aren't main sources of immigration to the United States.

Proposals pending in Congress would expand the number of visas available to farm workers or give visas to undocumented immigrant college students. Last year, President Bush had proposed a temporary work visa program that proved controversial with both Republicans and Democrats.

Immigrants who try the legal route sometimes lose, said Sohaila Daniel of Perris, 46, whose twin sister was forced to leave the country after failing to win asylum.

Daniel, who had a Lebanese refugee passport, won asylum two years ago. Her sister's family, Palestinian Catholics who fled Kuwait after Iraq invaded in 1990, had tried since 1991 to get asylum or a family-sponsored visa. They spent $40,000 on immigration lawyers.

Two years ago, they were on the waiting list for a sister-sponsored visa when they lost their asylum appeals and were given 45 days to leave the country. They moved to Canada, where they received visas quickly, Daniel said by phone.

"Their kids were raised here, they had a business, cars and a house," she said. "To them, it was really unfair."

Reach Sharyn Obsatz at (909) 368-9458 or


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