When civil unrest sparked by tough economic times overtook Edy Sulimin’s native land of Indonesia in the late 1990s, he was able to scrape together enough money to get himself and his family out.
A Christian of Chinese ancestry, Sulimin was a victim of what he calls “dual minority status” in his native land, the world’s most populous Muslim country. The only solution, he decided, was to escape to America.
Once here, he began work on a post-graduate degree in computer science and, after months of hard work, he earned his master’s degree from Eastern Michigan State University and landed a job with a tech firm. Now living in Ann Arbor, he says he still hopes to go to seminary someday – something he absolutely could not do in Indonesia.
But now that he’s in America, all his hopes and dreams may yet be dashed. Though he has worked hard to do the right thing, his honesty may actually be his undoing.
Some of the most vociferous critics of new bids to legalize or legitimize people who came into the country illegally are those aliens who played by the rules and experienced the oft-repeated nightmare of immigration bureaucracy – people like Sulimin.
He, and tens of thousands of others like him, may wind up becoming a casualty of U.S. immigration red tape, languishing in bureaucracy until their temporary H1-B visas and work permits run out.
As the Bush administration gears up to make another run at getting its most recent incarnation of immigration reform through a reluctant Congress, critics point to the fact that even in its new and improved form, there is no reason to expect much change in the way many migrants come into the country.
But this time around the plan also is being panned from an oft-unheard-from sector of the population – foreigners who have braved the maze of immigration laws, being forced to endure miles of red tape for the privilege of emigrating to the U.S. legally.
Earlier this month, two Republican members of the Arizona U.S. congressional delegation – Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake – along with a handful of other GOP lawmakers, were briefed on the White House’s new-and-improved plan by Karl Rove, President Bush’s top adviser, during a Sept. 14 meeting.
The president’s revised plan reportedly would allow scores of illegal aliens to stay in the U.S. as guest workers by allowing them to apply for a three-year guest-worker visa.
If that happens, many will be forced to return to countries unable to match their opportunities in the U.S. at best and outright hostile to them at worst.
After making the decision to emigrate to the U.S., Sulimin applied for admission to Eastern Michigan. Once the university determined he could pay his way, it approved his application, contingent on his getting the proper approval from U.S. government authorities.
He then applied for a student visa, through the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, which ultimately granted his request.
At that, he set out for the U.S. in the fall of 1999. But he went alone, leaving his wife and daughter in Indonesia because he didn’t have enough money to bring them along.
Through tireless efforts, however, he was finally able to send for them a short time later, and probably not a moment too soon.
“Chinese and Chinese-looking women were being raped in the streets” back home, Sulimin said in an interview. “We were the government’s scapegoats.”
The Indonesian government blamed “rich Chinese” for much of the country’s economic misfortune. That, in turn, caused retaliation against ethnic Chinese and even native Indonesians, like Sulimin, who had Chinese backgrounds.
Adrift in bureaucracy
The first step in the Sulimins’ journey was to apply for some sort of legal immigrant status. In 2002, Sulimin said he “began the first step of application for a permanent residency by filing a petition for labor certification” with the Department of Labor, “certifying that my current employment will not in any way jeopardize American workforce and salary.”
But now, more than three years later, Sulimin still doesn’t have “any clue” when his application will even be examined, let alone adjudicated.
Upon exam, the reason became clear: The federal government has a backlog of some 300,000-400,000 such hopefuls, with no indication when it will be able to clean up a jam of applications that used to take just one to three months.
The U.S. Department of Labor Employment Training Division says it is trying diligently to clear up the backlog. The department has shifted all of the labor certification applications from every state to two “Backlog Centers” – one in Philadelphia and one in Dallas – in an effort to get them processed.
“We estimate with adequate resources, it will take approximately 24-30 months to eliminate the permanent program’s backlog of cases,” the department said on its website.
That was July 2004. But today, the situation is no better. Sulimin says he’s received confirmation that his application has been transferred to the Backlog Center in Philadelphia and assigned a temporary number. It took a year, he said, to make it from the state agency.
Worse, the agency now is burdened with providing assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims and probably will be involved in similar efforts for Hurricane Rita, further taxing its resources.
Back to the future
Congress has made recent attempts to legitimize lawbreaking illegal immigrants, with mixed success and no small amount of criticism.
In 2002, congressional supporters tried unsuccessfully to extend Section 245(i) of an immigration law passed in 1994 during the Clinton administration – a measure that was, according to the Federation on American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a “controversial” law since its creation.
If it had passed, FAIR says, it would have continued “to forgive immigration lawbreakers and reward them with the permanent residence they sought to gain by breaking the law – a form of amnesty.”
At the time the bill was being considered, Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., said it appeared to reward lawbreaking and “sends the wrong message.”
“There is a very long line for those who are waiting patiently to immigrate to the U.S. legally. This bill sends a message to those who are waiting to enter the U.S. legally, that there are no real penalties for entering the U.S. illegally,” he said.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., head of the House Immigration Reform Caucus and a leading advocate for substantial immigration reform, agrees.
“I have, several times, attended swearing-in ceremonies in Denver for immigrants who are being awarded their citizenship,” he told WND in an interview. “I always tell them that I have only two messages. The first is, ‘Welcome to America,’ and the second is, ‘Thank you for doing it the right way.’
“If illegal immigrants are given amnesty then I would have to add another message,” he continued. “That would be, ‘doing it the right way is for suckers.’”
Edy Sulimin also opposes any guest-worker plan because he sees it as inherently unfair.
“I am not anti immigration, obvious from being an immigrant myself. I admire this country for its freedom in every aspect of life,” he told WND. “And I agree that the current immigration problems need to be addressed.”
But, he says, “offering illegal immigrants legal status, even for those ‘who are already here,’ sends a wrong message that it is okay to break the law, and any other law.”
He also believes the program is wrongheaded because it will give an “unfair advantage” to the lawbreakers, at the expense of “those who came to the U.S. legally.”
“I am a temporary-worker [formerly a foreign-student] myself,” he said. “Having behaved as expected by the club charter, I am waiting and begging and waiting and begging to be allowed to join the membership. … I did not demand to be admitted to the club, but that my application be dealt in the most efficient and dignified way possible.”
Some suggest the best way to curb illegal immigration is to cater to more legal immigrants like Sulimin.
“Is it fair or wise to place strict controls on legal immigration when little is done to stem illegal entry?” writes Gary Becker, the 1992 Nobel laureate who teaches at the University of Chicago and is a fellow of the Hoover Institution, in an April 2004 column for BusinessWeek. “Preference should be given to younger persons who will get jobs and are likely to make a long-term commitment to the country, such as the many men and women who want to study at American universities.”
Currently, the number of illegal aliens in the U.S. is estimated to be about 13 million, says the Center for Immigration Studies, with more entering every year.
The organization says the U.S. admits between 700,000 and 900,000 legal immigrants annually, but cautions: “This number does not represent the actual number of people settling here lawfully – rather, it represents the total number of people who were granted permanent residence ['green cards'], half of whom are already living here, some illegally, some legally on temporary visas.”