There's a wonderful family at my church who are from Rwanda. They have been granted asylum in the United States, having successfully gone through the stressful process of proving that they had a reasonable fear of persecution in their country of origin. Gratefully, they are now safe in the United States and are rebuilding their lives.
Unfortunately, the whole family is not here. Celeste, the matriarch of the family and the member of the family whose safety was most at risk, came with her 17-year-old daughter, 12-year-old son, and 4-year-old daughter, but her eldest son, Pierre, was unable to accompany them, because he had already turned 21 years old. Her husband decided to stay in Rwanda so as not to abandon Pierre.
Now that Celeste has been granted asylum, she can petition for a visa to bring her husband over. She cannot petition for her son, Pierre, though, because he is too old. Once Celeste is eligible to apply for a green card -- one year after her being granted asylum -- she will be able to submit a petition for Pierre, but she will then need to wait through about eight years of backlogs before a visa is available for him as an unmarried son of a Lawful Permanent Resident.
Celeste's family's situation is not unique. Our current immigration system is plagued by these backlogs, which keep families separated for years and sometimes decades. A pastor I know who emigrated lawfully from El Salvador waited more than five years to be reunited to his wife and small children. A U.S. citizen client of mine has been waiting more than two decades to be reunited with her brother in the Philippines. These waits are simply a consequence of the ways that Congress wrote our laws. When Congress established the number of family reunification visas decades ago, they might have been adequate; in 2010, they clearly are not. This archaic system keeps spouses apart and parents separated from children, rather than helping families stay together.
In addition to the extreme waits, current law -- as strange as it sounds -- discourages marriage. For example, by the time he might be eligible to immigrate, Pierre will be 30 years old and will have spent nearly a decade apart from his family. If Pierre should, at some point in the next nine years, meet a young woman and decide to marry (as men in their mid-20s tend to do), his mother's petition will die, because there is no category under current law for married children of Lawful Permanent Residents. The effect of this policy is to provide a strong disincentive toward marriage. If it weren't against his Christian faith, Pierre could live with his girlfriend and father children without affecting his eligibility to immigrate, but at the moment he lawfully marries, his case will be closed.
Sadly, I'm convinced that this misguided law has effectively changed attitudes toward marriage in many immigrant communities. The word has spread in many immigrant communities that marriage -- unless you happen to be marrying a U.S. citizen -- can cause problems, so many couples live together without marrying, or they marry in a religious ceremony but avoid legal marriage in the eyes of the state.
Our immigration system is broken on many fronts: our national borders are insecure and we do not offer the visas necessary for the orderly, lawful immigration that our economy needs to grow. As a result of those factors, millions of immigrants have entered and are living and working illegally. In addition to addressing these problems, though, we desperately need Comprehensive Immigration Reform to fix problems in the family-based immigration legal system to keep families united and encourage strong, healthy marriages.
**Names in this story have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and is the US Church Training Specialist for World Relief, where his job is to help churches engage with issues of immigration. You can find tools and resources for helping churches understand this issue at www.welcomingthestranger.com. You can follow him on twitter at www.twitter.com/matthewsoerens.