tampabay.com

Lawyer toils for others' green cards - and his own

He understands immigrants’ frustration with the long process because he still endures it.

By LEONORA LAPETER
Published August 20, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG — Here’s what it will take to get a green card, the lawyer tells the woman from Argentina.

It will take three to five years. It will cost thousands of dollars. Her public relations job will have to be advertised to others to see if there are U.S. citizens who could replace her.

Barbara Soto’s face falls. The job part really bugs her. The 30-year-old, who came here nine years ago as a student on a tennis scholarship, doesn’t want her boss getting a bunch of applications from other people.

But she will do it all if this is what it takes to get a green card.

“I hope I find a husband first,’’ she said, sighing.

Amit Dehra, Soto’s immigration lawyer, nods sympathetically. He knows her pain. He’s been through this: the waiting, the anxiety, the complicated paperwork.

He’s been waiting almost two years for his green card.

***

Dehra, 29, thinks that if you work hard, you can get whatever you want in the United States. He’s got the Lexus, the house, the Movado  watch, his dream job. He even plays his beloved cricket in a local league on weekends.

Just six years ago, he was a tourist from India visiting his best friend in Columbus, Ohio.

Since then, he has gotten a law degree from George Washington University and a visa to work in the United States. He married a woman he met in Ohio who coincidentally lived two doors away from him in India when he was a child.

Now all he’s waiting for is the green card. Then citizenship. Then who knows, maybe a law office in India to match the one he works in here. He could travel between the two countries.

But these are dreams. First, the green card.

Last year, the United States issued 1.1-million green cards. Almost 60 percent of those were granted based on a family relationship, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. An additional 13 percent were seeking asylum, claiming political or religious persecution. About 22 percent get employers to sponsor them for a green card.

With Congress considering immigration reform, including one measure that would beef up border enforcement and another that would grant amnesty to some illegal immigrants, the calls to Dehra’s firm have increased exponentially. He and other lawyers say they can’t help many of the people who call, the illegal immigrants who simply don’t have a family connection or an employer to sponsor them.

One of the quickest ways to get a green card is to have a parent or a spouse sponsor you.

One of the hardest ways is to have a sibling sponsor you: These applications are among the lowest priority. Dehra recently represented a Palestinian woman with five kids. Her brother, a U.S. citizen originally from Jordan, was sponsoring her. Five of her brothers and her mother lived in Tampa. Each family member sponsored another until the entire family lived here. She was the only one left overseas.

She applied in 1993 and was still waiting when Dehra took the case. In 2001, her husband died, so she came here on a travel visa, staying after it expired.

In July, she finally got her green card.

“She lived in fear,’’ said Sohail Rifae, 44, a real estate agent and the brother who sponsored her. “When you’re a single woman, and you’ve got all these kids … we’re six brothers here so we could definitely help her.’’

***

When and whether you get a green card also depends largely on where you were born. People from Mexico, India, China and the Philippines have the longest waits. The United States granted 161,445 green cards to Mexicans last year, or 14.4 percent of all green cards issued — more than anywhere else in the world.

“India, China, Mexico, there is always a backlog,’’ Dehra told an Indian couple at his office one Monday. They had gotten married over the weekend. “They can’t accept yours now because they already have so many in the pipeline … but we’re very close.’’

The man has been here 16 years. The woman is a student and has been here a year and a half. She is pregnant. The couple, who did not want to be named, need green cards. An auto parts business in Tampa is sponsoring him.

Dehra, clean cut in a blue shirt with a white collar, looked through the man’s paperwork, reorganized it for him and showed him a date: April 28, 2001. It is his application date five years ago. The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services  is processing applications from Indians seeking employment green cards that were filed April 1, 2001.

Any day now, Dehra told him. Soon. Then Dehra can file another form to get the green card rolling. The woman’s application would ride on the man’s.

Dehra’s St. Petersburg law firm, Gorman Miotke & Associates, sponsored him in November 2004. Dehra is Indian but was born in Iraq, so that country went on his application. Because there are more people trying to get here from India than Iraq, his application date already has come up; he is already in the pool of people being considered for green cards. He is waiting for it to be processed. He has heard that there are delays with security clearances, FBI checks.

“It could be six months, it could be nine months,” he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.