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Originally published September 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 14, 2010 at 11:14 AM

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America's Dilemma: Understanding Immigration

U.S. residency: going for the green

Many Americans have asked: Why don't illegal immigrants just fill out the proper paperwork? For almost all those already deemed illegal...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Many Americans have asked: Why don't illegal immigrants just fill out the proper paperwork?

For almost all those already deemed illegal, the answer is simple: They can't. Pathways to legal residency are all but closed to immigrants who sneaked into the United States. They are considered inadmissible.

If they do try to correct their status through an established pathway — by marrying a U.S. citizen, say, or finding a job with a company willing to petition for them — they first must return to their homeland to wait out what's called a bar. It can range from a few years to a lifetime. As a result, few do it.

"It used to be they could pay a penalty and have the bar waived," said Matt Adams, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. "But the law changed."

It's a different matter for immigrants who are not already here illegally. Last year, more than 1 million completed the sometimes lengthy process of becoming legal permanent residents.

That coveted status, reflected with a green card, means an immigrant can live in the U.S., own property and serve in certain branches of the armed forces.

Some who obtain green cards first arrive on a student, work or travel visa, then set out to become legal permanent residents. Others receive green cards while still in their home countries, typically by marrying a U.S. citizen or through connections to other close relatives who are citizens or green-card holders.

As an illegal immigrant, Sam Mireles cannot pursue such pathways to legal residency.

Mireles, 36, came to the U.S. in 1997, after paying a smuggler $2,500 to help him cross the border at Arizona. Mireles later returned to visit his family in Mexico, then slipped back into the U.S.

He now owns a mobile home in Maltby where he lives with his common-law wife and two of his three children. He has worked for nine years for a company in Woodinville, where he supervises a dozen workers. But because he has illegally crossed the border twice, his bar from the U.S. would be permanent.

"I left everything behind in my country to come here," he said. He said he remains, hoping for amnesty or other broad policy changes, because he wants his children to have opportunities.

The law is a little more forgiving of immigrants who entered on a valid visa, then overstayed it. Often, they can obtain a waiver to the bar by marrying an American or legal resident to get their green card.

What follows are the principal ways most immigrants obtain green cards:

Family sponsorships

How it works: Immigrants can win status as legal permanent residents when close U.S. relatives or spouses petition for them.

A majority of immigrants receive green cards by being related to a U.S. citizen or green-card holder.

U.S. citizens can petition for spouses, minor or adult children, parents or siblings. Permanent residents can sponsor only their spouses and unmarried children.

In 2003, a dozen years after he became a U.S. citizen, Laine Seleba filed a petition for his 70-year-old mother to obtain her green card.

She had come to visit from the East African country of Eritrea, from which he had fled during that country's struggle for independence from Ethiopia. He was given refugee status and later obtained a green card to live permanently in the U.S.

"I was basically taking care of her, sending money back home to support her," he said from his home in Shoreline, where he lives with his mother, his wife and child. "When she came we decided, why go back home? We started to explore the possibility of having her stay here."

With help from the International Rescue Committee, an organization that assists new immigrants, his mother, Werku Tekle, obtained her green card last year. The parents, spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens are in a privileged lot for which there are no quotas or waiting lists. They receive green cards as soon as their paperwork is processed.

In other family cases, however, there are quotas and the wait can be long. The longest — about 23 years — is for a citizen's sibling in the Philippines.

Work visas

How it works: Employers may petition on a worker's behalf but must first prove no American is available to take the job.

Because the government recognizes the value of foreign labor to the U.S. economy, it allows some with special skills to enter the U.S. on a work visa, such as an H-1B — the kind held by many at businesses such as Microsoft.

For those who want to remain in the country, employers must petition on their behalf for a green card. Wealthy foreigners also can obtain a green card by investing in a business that creates jobs.

In most cases, employers must prove they are unable to find qualified U.S. workers for the job. An employee's wait for a green card depends on his native country and into which of several categories he falls — from having a special skill to holding an advanced degree.

Refugees and asylees

How it works: Those seeking protection from persecution in their home country may seek refuge in the U.S.

Perhaps no pathway is as debated as the one for refugees and asylum seekers, who must show that their life is in jeopardy in their homeland.

Asylum seekers make their claim from U.S. soil; refugees do so from abroad.

Kalina Spasovska, now a reservation agent at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Seattle, fled impending civil war in Macedonia in November 2001, arriving in New York on a temporary visa.

She applied for asylum, claiming she and her sister were vulnerable. Her mother's stepfather is Albanian, and she and her sister were living in an Albanian area of Macedonia. She said they were expected to side with the Albanians: "We were seen as traitors. Our lives became endangered."

Spasovska had her case transferred to Seattle from New York. Refugees and asylees are eligible to apply for a green card after one year of residence in the U.S.; Spasovska received hers in 2004.

"I came to this country at the peak of its national insecurity," soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, said Spasovska, 25.

"I didn't feel the consequences of that. I felt very welcomed."

Green-card lottery

How it works: Residents of certain countries are selected for green cards largely by the luck of the draw.

In Bulgaria, Plamen Petkov had been trying for five years to win the green-card lottery.

He and his wife had no family in the United States to petition for them, so this unusual method was their only hope.

The lottery is open to residents of countries from which fewer than 50,000 have emigrated to the U.S. during the proceeding five years. The State Department hands out between 50,000 and 55,000 green cards this way each year.

Petkov, 37, a police officer in Bulgaria, knew his chances were slim. But his number came up two years ago, allowing him, his wife and their son, now 13, to come to the U.S. They live in West Seattle.

Petkov has landed a job in a pizza shop. His wife, Zdravka Petkova, who worked as a seamstress in Bulgaria, is still trying to find work. His son, Trayan Trifonov, enrolled in Madison Middle School.

Speaking for the family, the son said his parents were determined that he would make it to the U.S. even if they didn't, so they encouraged him to learn English and do well in school.

Their hope, he said, was that he one day would be admitted to an American university — a goal he's now pursuing.

Other methods

Immigrants have gained legal status in less common ways, such as amnesty programs or private bills written specifically for them by members of Congress. Certain special immigrants, such as those who serve in the armed services, certain religious workers, informers of terrorism or victims of certain crimes also may qualify.

Immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for 10 consecutive years also may try to convince a court that deporting them would be a hardship for a spouse, parent or child who's a U.S. citizen. Such claims rarely are granted, and while winners can stay, losers are deported.

Material from a book by Allan Wernick, "U.S. Immigration & Citizenship * Your Complete Guide," was included in this report.

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