The policy over the issuing of visas is a key component of new immigration laws that are being debated in Congress.
In his State of the Union address a week ago, President Obama repeated a phrase that's become common in the debate over an overhaul in immigration policy: undocumented people who hope for a path to citizenship will have to go "to the back of the line."
Yet even for people who want to enter legally with the help of a sponsor in this country, the back of the line makes for a mighty long wait. Take one family's story:
In the mid-1980s, Meeran Mahmud was a child in her native Pakistan when an uncle in the U.S. offered to sponsor an effort to secure immigrant visas for Mahmud's mother and children, including Meeran's older sister, Maryam.
"My sister must have been around 12 when my uncle applied for [us],” Meeran says.
As they waited for their visas, a decade passed. Maryam turned 21, which left her aged out of the petition. That meant Maryam had to remain in Pakistan when the rest of the family left 17 years ago.
Three years ago, when the mother finally became a U.S. citizen, she filed a new petition for her older daughter.
"But now she’s going to be 40," Mahmud says of her sister, "and she still has no status."
Welcome to the back of the line. While Maryan has waited for a chance to join her younger sister, their lives have taken different paths. In the United States, Meeran finished college and law school. She recently became an immigration attorney for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, where she sees lots of cases like her sister’s.
The last time Meeran checked, Maryam — who is now married with kids, and would have to petition to bring her family — is looking at an 11-year wait.
"So her opportunity to go to college here, or to be here when things are getting so unsafe in Pakistan, is lost, essentially," Meeran says.
While policymakers have focused on whether undocumented immigrants will be allowed to get in line, immigrant advocates hope reforms will address the line itself. The wait for family-sponsored visas can exceed 20 years for some hopeful immigrants. That’s because the U.S. allows every country the same percentage each year from a pool of family- and employer-based visas, regardless of demand from individual nations.
In Mexico, along with the Philippines and other Asian nations, there is simply more demand for family reunification than there are visas available, says David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"It is absolutely absurd that a green card holder, someone that is here lawfully, has to wait years and years before she can bring her husband, or he can bring his wife," Leopold says. "People live their lives and die before these visas are issued.”
The long waits don’t apply to immediate relatives of citizens, including spouses, parents and children younger than 21. And there is now a federal policy to protect against what happened to Maryam. But adult children and siblings, and the spouses of legal residents, can spend decades in line, with some categories budging little over time; sometimes, the wait times fluctuate and people who thought their turn was up must wait even longer. The average wait for an adult sibling in the Philippines is about 23 years.
Lawmakers face tough choices as they decide how to overhaul the immigration system. One possibility could include opening up more visas by limiting sponsorship to immediate family, like spouses and children.
"We need a system that is fair and that is humane," says Leopold, "but we also need to be reasonable as far as how open the doors of this country are going to be."
As the debate simmers, many thousands of people dangle in suspense – as Maryam Mahmud in Pakistan has since she was 12 years old. By the time she may get to join her family in the U.S., it’s likely she’ll be in her fifties.