Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Left out of immigation reform: Waits for family visas drag on

Visa backlogs will continue, despite President Obama's executive action on immigration.
Visa backlogs will continue, despite President Obama's executive action on immigration.

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Carlota Lasmarias' younger brother and sister have been waiting since the mid-1990s to come to the United States from the Philippines.

"They want to feel the American dream," said Lasmarias, an accounting clerk living in Los Angeles. "I told them: it’s nice here for your children to grow up here."

But there is no immediate relief in sight for the logjam of people waiting to come on family-sponsored visas from her native Philippines and other countries where demand far outstrips supply.

Hopes that the U.S. government would improve wait times were dashed when President Obama failed to directly address the issue in his recent immigration order. He instead created a task force that will take up visa backlogs.

"The job is still not yet done on family visas," said Congresswoman Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, who promised to work with the new task force.

Mexico has the largest number of people waiting to enter the U.S. on family-sponsored visas — not surprising, given the Mexicans make up the country's largest group of immigrants.

But Chu pointed out that when you compare the visa applications to the proportion of immigrants in the country, delays on family visas disproportionately affect Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. They make up 40 percent of the 4.2 million people caught up in the backlog, she said.

Asian countries —the Philippines, India, Vietnam and China — round out the top 5 countries with the longest waiting lists, according to the most recent annual report on family visas from the State Department. The waits are among the worst for Filipinos.

"For a brother or sister of a U.S. citizen, it might take 22 years," said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.  "For some other Asian countries, it might take 10 years. It's a horrible situation for many families."

Lasmarias said it was her father who had sponsored her younger brother and sister to come here from the Philippines, and it was to be a joyous reunification.

That was nearly 20 years ago. Their petitions may be complicated by his death earlier this year.

Bringing her siblings to the U.S. now feels out of her control.

"The government should give the people waiting so long a chance to come here," Lasmarias said.

Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center in Los Angeles, said that long visa waits take a toll on families, especially when parents make it to the U.S. first and apply to bring their children.

"Being separated for so long and coming back together can be a very hard transition,"  Soriano-Versoza said. "There's resentment and guilt, and just getting to know each other again."