WHEN SUMATHI ATHLURI met the man she was destined to marry, it was love at first sight. She sensed at once that Jeevan Kumar, a young physician working on a World Health Organization project to eradicate polio in India, was someone special. And the more she learned about his lifestyle and values, she was telling me the other day by phone from Salem, where she now lives, "the more I felt he was the man I was looking for."
Jeevan was equally taken with Sumathi, a software engineer from Hyderabad who had moved to the United States on an H-1B work visa in 1999 and had become a legal permanent resident -- the holder of a green card -- in February 2002. The couple was married in India in August 2002, and for the first three months of their marriage they were virtually inseparable.
But green-card holders are not permitted to remain abroad indefinitely, and when the time came for Sumathi to return to the United States, she was a wreck. "It was so painful to leave him," she says. "I was crying in the plane all the way to the US."
Hoping to be quickly reunited with her husband, Sumathi filed a Form I-130, an application for an immigrant visa that would allow Jeevan to enter the United States. That was when she ran headlong into what has been called the most anti-family, anti-marriage, anti-immigrant aspect of American law: the prolonged and pointless separation of legal permanent residents from their spouses and children.
Sumathi's I-130 application for Jeevan was submitted more than three years ago; unless the law changes, it is likely to take at least two more years before his immigrant visa is finally approved. In the meantime, he is barred from entering the United States to visit his wife, even briefly. Because Sumathi has a green card -- because she is here lawfully and will soon be eligible for US citizenship -- her husband cannot get even a tourist visa to come see her.
Crazy? Yes, and it gets worse: If Sumathi had first gotten married and then applied for her green card, her husband would have been able to move here right away. Same thing if she had been here on a student visa, or had simply made no change in her status as the holder of a work visa. But becoming a legal permanent resident meant that anyone she subsequently married (and any child she gave birth to) outside the United States would have to languish on a waiting list for five or more years before being allowed to enter the country.
No policy aim is advanced by separating legal immigrants from their spouses and children -- especially when the only immigrants affected are those who have proclaimed their commitment to this country by becoming permanent residents. Congress didn't set out deliberately to put Sumathi and Jeevan and others like them through emotional torment. But by holding down the annual number of immigrant visas available to the spouses and kids of green-card holders, it unwittingly created a giant backlog.
Happily, the problem can be solved: Congress has only to remove the annual quota on visas for immediate relatives of legal permanent residents, thereby clearing up the backlog and eliminating the long wait. Legislation introduced by Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska would make that change. An alternative solution, offered by Representative Robert Andrews of New Jersey, would allow the spouse and minor children of green-card holders to enter the United States on a special "V visa," and to live here while waiting for their immigration petitions to be approved.
Unlike the illegal immigrants who have been raising such a ruckus across the country in recent days, green-card holders like Sumathi broke no laws to get here. Most of them are highly skilled professionals who eventually become US citizens, enriching their adopted country in the time-honored immigrant manner.
"I came here legally," says Sumathi, who develops speech recognition software for use in healthcare settings. "I'm making a contribution. I pay my taxes. I've never been a burden to the government. My husband is a doctor whose work on polio is saving lives. Why must we be separated like this?" She observes tartly that the United States lectures other countries about the importance of marriage and family. Yet "US immigration law is destroying my family life. I live alone, eat alone, sleep alone, cry alone, and suffer alone. . . . The only thing that keeps me going is my husband's photograph sitting next to me."
It is no virtue to split husbands from wives, or parents from young children. What is being done to immigrants like Sumathi Athluri is both unjust and unwise. Above all, it is unworthy of a nation built by immigrants.