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Immigrants Are Scrambling To Submit Petitions For Family Members To Come To U.S.


The Senate did not pass an immigration bill this week, and a major sticking point was legal immigration. President Trump wants Congress to limit the number of family members who immigrants here legally can sponsor to join them in the United States. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the proposal has caused panic in some communities.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: After Donald Trump won the presidency, frightened immigrants rushed to legal offices to get green cards, become naturalized citizens and apply for protection under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. That's the program for immigrants brought here as children. Now there's a new scramble.

KATIE MULLINS: They are calling. And to be frank, they are freaked out.

BURNETT: Katie Mullins is an immigration attorney in San Antonio. She works for an advocacy group called RAICES.

MULLINS: People are in a rush to try to get applications submitted as soon as possible just in case the law does change. They're very nervous that their 22-year-old daughter who lives in their country of origin is going to be completely denied the opportunity that she would otherwise have to come here on a family-based petition.

BURNETT: The president's immigration blueprint would dramatically reduce the number of green cards issued to immigrants for permanent residency in the United States. The proposal would make parents, siblings and adult children of U.S. sponsors ineligible. The Senate deadlocked over this and other divisive issues and could not agree on an immigration makeover, at least for now. President Trump in his State of the Union got booed by Democrats for misrepresenting how it works now.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.


TRUMP: Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children.


BURNETT: That got Nancy Burrion's attention. She's a customer service representative who lives in Houston. Her parents brought her here from Central America, and she became a naturalized citizen. That allows her to petition to legalize her Salvadoran mother, Brigida, who lives in California. Brigida and 200,000 other Salvadorans must leave the country in the next 19 months. They had been allowed to live and work in the U.S. since a pair of earthquakes struck El Salvador in 2001, but the Trump administration recently terminated their temporary protected status.

NANCY BURRION: I want to make sure that she doesn't go anywhere, that she is going to stay here with us, which is her family.

BURNETT: Nancy Burrion and her siblings anticipate paying up to $10,000 to an attorney to shepherd their mom's case through the Byzantine sponsorship process.

BURRION: We feel it was the best route to go before they do change any laws.

BURNETT: The American Immigration Lawyers Association says its members across the country are experiencing a surge of consultations. Maurice Goldman works in a small family firm in Tucson. He says he's working weekends and missing his son's tennis tournaments just to keep up with new clients. He says many are in for a long wait.

MAURICE GOLDMAN: For example, if you're from the United States and you want to sponsor your sister from Mexico, right now the processing time is looking like at least 20 years, if not longer.

BURNETT: Because of congressionally imposed caps on immigrants from individual countries and on categories of family members, the wait for an immigrant visa can be decades for some countries like Mexico, India and the Philippines. Now add to those waiting times the crush of new applicants.

GOLDMAN: And so you're going to see people potentially waiting an additional five years or longer.

BURNETT: The president has assured even if a new law sets limits on family-sponsored immigration, no one will be kicked out of line. John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "MY ONLY SWERVING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.