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Andrew Bachert spoke to his wife, Debra, who is living in Australia with their children awaiting a green card, during a Skype session at his apartment in Hartford, Conn.

CHRISTOPHER CAPOZZIELLO photos • The New York Times,

Bachert is among hundreds of thousands of Americans separated from family because of a focus on deportation deferrals.

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Visa program benefits some, but extends wait for others

  • Article by: JULIA PRESTON New York Times
  • February 8, 2014 - 7:28 PM

Hundreds of thousands of Americans seeking green cards for foreign spouses or other immediate relatives have been separated from them for a year or more because of swelling bureaucratic delays at a U.S. immigration agency in recent months.

The long waits came when the agency, Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), shifted attention and resources to a program President Obama started in 2012 to give deportation deferrals to young undocumented immigrants, according to administration officials and official data.

The trouble that U.S. citizens have faced gaining permanent resident visas for their families raises questions about the agency’s priorities and its readiness to handle what could become a far bigger task. After Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Thursday that the House was not likely to act on an immigration overhaul this year, immigrant advocates are turning up their pressure on Obama to expand the deferral program to include many more of the 11.7 million immigrants in the country illegally.

Stranded overseas

Andrew Bachert is one citizen caught in the slowdown. After he moved back to this country in August for work, he thought he and his wife, who is Australian, would be settled by now in a new home in New York state, shoveling snow and adjusting to the winter chill. Instead his wife, Debra Bachert, is stranded, along with the couple’s two teenagers and two dogs, in a hastily rented house in Adelaide, Australia.

“I’m sitting over here on my own, and it’s unbearably hard,” said Andrew Bachert, 48. At the current pace, Debra Bachert will probably not travel to the United States before August.

Until recently, an American could obtain a green card for a spouse, child or parent — probably the easiest document in the immigration system — in five months or less. But over the past year, waits for approvals of those resident visas stretched to 15 months, and more than 500,000 applications became stuck in the pipeline, playing havoc with international moves.

“U.S. citizens petitioning for green cards for immediate relatives are a high, if not the highest, priority in the way Congress set up the immigration system,” said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the national bar association. “This is a problem that needs to be fixed quickly.”

Impact felt with green cards

Christopher S. Bentley, a CIS spokesman, said the agency had seen “a temporary increase in processing times” for the citizens’ green card applications because of the deferrals program and “the standard ebb and flow” of visas.

Last year, officials said, the agency detected the problem and tried to speed up the green cards by spreading them out to three processing centers. In November, the agency reported it had reduced waits to 10 months, calling that a “significant step forward.” Officials said they hoped to reduce waits to five months, but not before this summer.

After Obama announced the deferral program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in 2012, he gave CIS only two months to get it running. Agency officials scrambled. As of last week, 521,815 youths had received deferrals, with the agency handling more than 2,000 applications a day. Soon after the deferrals were underway, Americans with green card applications felt the impact.

“You end up seeing a steep decline in approvals for people like me who followed the law,” said Forrest Nabors, 47, a political-science professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, who filed in July for a green card for his wife, Zdenka, who is Czech.



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