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LI reunions with overseas relatives on hold due to green card suspension

Pedestrians cross a bridge over Interstate-805 at the

Pedestrians cross a bridge over Interstate-805 at the U.S.-Mexico border in the San Ysidro community in San Diego on April 22.   Credit: ETIENNE LAURENT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Long Islanders who have spent years getting necessary approvals to bring overseas relatives to the United States now find their plans disrupted by a presidential proclamation.

Citing the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump limited legal immigration with an executive order imposing a 60-day suspension on new green cards for certain categories of immigrants, with extensions likely, say lawyers and analysts.

The news has frustrated and upset those whose plans are now on hold, said Hauppauge immigration attorney Jorge Macias. He cited a 48-year-old Shirley businessman who was close to bringing his 78-year-old mother here from Ecuador. “We were really, really close,” the businessman told Macias. “It’s taken a long time and now we’re stuck.”

Only overseas spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens are exempt from the restrictions on family immigration, as are some temporary work visas for sectors like agriculture and health care. Immigrants within the United States can proceed on their own applications to change their status and obtain green cards. The order took effect on April 23.

Macias said meeting the requirements for necessary waivers and approvals can be difficult for immigrants even without the suspension. “It’s causing a lot of stress and frustration among my clients,” he said. “They’re pretty much in limbo as to whether they should apply or not.”

He added, “It’s so unfair. People have done the right thing and waited in their country — they followed the rules on coming to the U.S. and getting a green card and now they can’t.”

Unlike those of U.S. citizens, legal residents’ applications for overseas relatives are completely suspended, even for spouses and minor children, as are U.S. citizens’ applications for parents, siblings and older children. The pandemic had already delayed all green card applications overseas since in-person consular interviews needed for final approval were suspended last month.

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The suspension follows another Trump administration rule change making it harder to obtain green cards. Called the “public charge” rule, the Supreme Court allowed it to go into effect in February despite legal challenges. It says green cards can be rejected based on factors such as age, health, financial resources, educational level and use — or possible future use — of public benefits such as food aid, Medicaid or shelter assistance.

The new proclamation is adding more uncertainty, said immigration attorney Jessica Della Sala, based in Ronkonkoma.

“I’ve been getting a lot of emails and calls from people concerned how this will affect them,” she said.

“My clients spent a lot of time saving up money and starting the process to bring their family here. … If this goes beyond 60 days it will create a huge backlog of paperwork and interviews and will affect even those applicants for which the public charge rule is not a concern.”

The pandemic is causing delays already, including for U.S.-born Eileen Vera, 21, of Brentwood, who married a young man from her father's hometown in Ecuador, where he is waiting for a green card. "The coronavirus is really bad there," said Vera, who works as a nursing home aide and veterinary assistant. "Hospitals are full and there are no jobs. It hurts being apart from him and I can't travel to be with him."

Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the nonpartisan think tank The Migration Policy Institute, said their analysis found that about 315,000 green card applications  are normally processed annually in the categories affected by the new proclamation. That works out to more than 52,000 in 60 days. More than a million green cards are issued annually. 

She said the proclamation used the same legal basis that federal courts upheld in Trump’s travel bans. Although this proclamation is far broader, she said, it could well be upheld given his "string of recent successes before federal courts."

Trump has long opposed the current family-based immigration system, which allows legal permanent residents and citizens to sponsor overseas relatives for entry to the United States, calling it "chain migration." He wants instead to admit immigrants based on wealth or professional attainments, and end the diversity lottery visa program as well. He has met with Congressional resistance.

“Reducing legal immigration is kind of the last frontier for the president,” she said, noting that legal immigration is set by law. “But this proclamation is doing just that, limiting legal immigration without congressional participation.”

She added, “I think it is very unlikely this will last for only 60 days, especially as he’s based it on the economic crisis … It’ll be easy for a future administration to reverse this action if they so choose.”

A couple in Islandia is hoping for that outcome. They were nearing success in bringing over the two grown sons of the wife, who as a legal resident is affected by the new proclamation. “She’s very sad,” said her husband, Emilio Maza, 67, a U.S. citizen. “But we have faith they will be here. I’ve been here for 47 years … and this is a great country.”

He added: “It is the American dream — we thought we were going to complete it with the kids coming. Now it’ll take a little longer.”

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