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Immigration Path Too Slow To Follow The Rules?
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi is a legend, not just in his native Zimbabwe, but all over the world. He's 60 years old and he's now put out more albums than he's had birthdays. He joins us in studio for a very special performance chat. He'll talk about the tragedy that inspired his latest album and he'll play some songs for us, as well. That's in just a few minutes. But first, we want to continue this discussion about immigration.
We've heard a lot about the millions of undocumented immigrants who are living in the U.S. In fact, their future is now one of the most high-profile issues in Congress. But a lot less is said about the immigrants who are trying to follow the law and the struggle they face to get citizenship or even permanent resident status. To learn more about why this is, we're joined by Tamar Jacoby. She's the president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA. And also joining us is Eduardo de Souza. He's the associate head soccer coach at Longwood University in Virginia. He's been living in the U.S. since 1999 on a series of visas. Welcome to both of you.
TAMAR JACOBY: Hello, good to be here.
DE SOUZA: Hello, good morning.
HEADLEE: Tamar, let me begin with you. How is it that the debate over immigration has focused so much on undocumented immigrants, and we've kind of a left those who've applied for citizenship or permanent resident in the dust?
JACOBY: I think the people who are here without any status at that all are so much - it's so much more of a problem. Eleven million people living in our midst but not part of our society, whatever your political values are, that's a problem. If you're worried about the rule of law, it's a problem. If you are worried about human rights, it's a problem. Mr. de Souza, who we'll talk to in a minute, he's got some problems, but he's caught in a bureaucratic system. He's not left out of society.
So - but, you know, I think the important thing is we think about the problem - of course his problem needs to get fixed, too. This is not an either/or. You will hear some people say, you know, help people like Mr. de Souza and fix that before you fix the 11 million unauthorized. That's not the right approach. We can do both in this country.
We can get the system working so that we don't create any more people like de Souza - Mr. de Souza, and we don't create any more people like the unauthorized living in the shadows, and we can help them both in the short-term. This should be - that's why we're trying to do a big overhaul of this system, not just a piece here and a piece there.
HEADLEE: Well, Eduardo, you've been caught up in this bureaucratic system for years. You came to the U.S. in 1999. You came here to play soccer, as I understand, but you ended up going to both undergraduate and graduate school. And what's your immigration status now?
SOUZA: Yes. My immigration status is the work visa they call H1B, which allow workers of the United States to stay for at least six years. So I'm in the second lag of this visa, so I applied for my last three years on that visa that will expire in 2015. So it's a little bit frustrating in a way that, you know, you do everything correct, you pay your tax, you go by the law. I have a young daughter right now, but what's concern me is, what's going to happen with her in her future, if in 2015 I don't have a green card or I don't get a citizenship. Would I start my life, after I invest more than 10 years in the United States, back in Brazil? How this going to be, which I'm reaching right now - 39 years old?
HEADLEE: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that, 'cause as you say, your H1B visa runs out 2015. I understand your wife has a visa, and hers actually extends longer than that. And then you have a one-year-old daughter who is an American citizen, right?
HEADLEE: So what will you do? Let's say you don't get your visa renewed, will you actually leave the U.S. and go back to Brazil and leave your wife and daughter here?
SOUZA: No, definitely not. There is other ways, that through the - under the law, that you can apply for different visas as a work visa, as well. There is extraordinary ability visa, is the one that I'm trying to pursue, as well, if the green card doesn't work. Which, you know, I can prove that I have degrees here in this country, I get some awards, I was a professional player. So all those things combined can help in my process. And I can also get another three years of work visa and maybe delay a little bit more and wait for the immigration bill pass and give something in favor of the legal immigrants.
HEADLEE: Tamar, I mean, we're talking here about somebody who is trying to go through legal channels and clearly dealing with a system that is broken.
JACOBY: Well, that's true. But, I mean, there's two points here, right? One is, we don't actually owe everyone who gets here for a little while the right to stay forever. Now it sounds like Mr. de Souza is somebody who we should look at really carefully and want to have stay. But we can't have a system where anyone who gets any kind of foothold here then is guaranteed the right to stay forever, right. Like, no country in the world can do that. So we do want better paths, but let's...
HEADLEE: More efficient paths.
JACOBY: More efficient paths. But it's not about - Mr. de Souza is not a victim. You know, he was lucky enough to get here and figure out how to have a foothold. Now he has to figure out a better way. But the problem with the system is that we promised many, too many visas that we can eventually deliver. We do give a lot of people hope that they can get kind of their fingers, you know, on the ledge, so to speak, and then there's no way to climb up. We let in people on H1B visas - many more people on temporary visas than we have permanent visas to give them. So there's a big funnel effect where you have all these people on temporary visas who can't make the transition to a green card.
A lot of them are high-tech workers who come and they have this short-term visa and it seems so great at the beginning and it's easy to get and streamlined and you get hired right away. But then, there might be between half a million and a million people like that waiting for green cards, and there aren't enough green cards to give them. And those people hang out in limbo for a long time, unable to change jobs and unable to get promoted and their spouses can't work 'cause they're waiting to get through that funnel. That's one way we promise and can't deliver. We also have a system where we tell siblings and adult children and married children of people who are living here now, people - those children and adult children who are still abroad.
We say to them, you have a right to come, and we give them numbers, like they're waiting in a line in a bakery, but then the line moves so slowly that their part of the line can take literally a decade or two 'till they get to the - before they get to the window. And so, you know, we either - we have to kind of make a choice, do we really want to make so many promises that we can't keep or do we want to stop making fewer promises and keep the promises?
HEADLEE: Well, let me take that to Eduardo. Eduardo, you heard what Tamar is saying. Do you feel as though you had the sense that you were promised a permanent place here because you got a visa?
SOUZA: No, I understand that I wasn't being promised anything. But I kind of disagree with her because I don't been here for a little while. I've been here for a decade or more and invested a lot of things in United States, money, you know, paying tax, everything that everybody do. I understand that, but I believe, too, in the American dream.
I think if you do right, you know, you should be rewarded because in this country - I just heard before, the person that was being interviewed - this country is made by people that immigrate here. So it's like, you know, when you do the right thing and you correct me if I'm wrong, you know. What should you do? Should I just - so easy to get home and start over a life after you invest more than 10 years in your country. So I kind of - that's the frustration for me. No, like, just like, I came here for a little while and then, OK, thank you very much, and go home.
JACOBY: No, of course...
SOUZA: ...That's not the way that works.
JACOBY: Of course, Mr. de Souza, I understand. You - if I was making the decisions, you would be a very good candidate to stay and I hope that that's what the decision will come out. I'm just saying we need a system where we - I mean, for example, telling people that their adult siblings can have a visa, there are a lot of people who are questioning that now, that immigrants who are here already want to sponsor their adult siblings.
HEADLEE: But let's focus the conversation in - our focus today is on people who - like Mr. de Souza, who have applied and are trying to either get a permanent resident or at least - or perhaps citizenship the legal way.
HEADLEE: And what we hear over and over again, not just in Mr. de Souza's case, but in so many cases...
HEADLEE: ...Is that even if you're applying legally, even, as in Eduardo's case, you have a college degree from here, you have an American citizen child and a job where they want to keep you...
HEADLEE: ...And your employer wants to...
JACOBY: ...Yeah, yeah.
HEADLEE: ...Get you permanent residence status...
JACOBY: ...He's a good case. He should stay...
HEADLEE: ...This is...
JACOBY: ...That's what I said.
HEADLEE: ...What I'm saying, is that even then it can take...
HEADLEE: ...Over a decade. The system itself is so bogged down in bureaucratic nonsense.
JACOBY: Wouldn't quarrel with you. Wouldn't - would not - no one - I don't think there's anybody, even at the - at any level in the immigration service who would quarrel with you.
HEADLEE: OK. So there we finally agree, at least. You can agree on that, too, Eduardo, it needs someone to fix the bureaucratic nonsense, right?
SOUZA: Yeah, definitely. What people in my situation are waiting for is for the government...
SOUZA: ...You know, to do the right thing. OK, I understand that the legal - the illegal issues and that's something I don't want to even talk about. Everyone has a different life and I don't blame...
SOUZA: ...If they came illegal or not. But in my case, I would like to be rewarded for that...
HEADLEE: ...Well, at least we can...
SOUZA: ...I'm doing the right thing...
HEADLEE: ...You are.
HEADLEE: ...And let me end the conversation there 'cause, unfortunately, we're out of time. But at least we end on agreement. That's Eduardo de Souza, associate head coach at Longwood University in Virginia, and Tamar Jacoby is the president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA - joined us in here in Washington. Thank you both so much.
SOUZA: OK. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.