Frances Roberts for The New York Times
Gabriella A. Barschdorff, a vice president at J. P. Morgan Chase, waiting in line outside immigration district offices at 26 Federal Plaza.
April 6, 2004

Wait for U.S. Residency Soars Over 18-Month Span


Gabriella A. Barschdorff, a vice president for strategic investment at J. P. Morgan Chase in New York, is not exactly the huddled-masses type. But one rainy day last week, shortly before 7 a.m., she joined the long, bedraggled line of immigrants standing outside 26 Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan. There she took the spot held for her by a young man she had hired to camp out in his sleeping bag.

It was all part of a last-ditch bid to get her formal travel document, a paper that, as a legal foreign worker with a pending green card application, she badly needed. If she failed, she would miss a business meeting in London. If she went without the permit, she risked being barred from coming back to America.

Ms. Barschdorff, who is Swedish, is one of thousands of skilled foreign professionals working legally in the United States who find themselves virtual prisoners of a ballooning immigration-services backlog. In the last year, the mostly routine paperwork they need to work and travel has slowed to a crawl.


Waiting It Out With Immigration
Chart: Waiting It Out With Immigration
Processing times for everything from renewing an annual work permit to securing permanent legal residency have as much as quadrupled over the last 18 months, despite the Bush administration's pledge to cut waiting times in half. The wait to replace a lost green card, for instance, has grown to 19 months from four. And the kind of paperwork sought by Ms. Barschdorff a document allowing her to re-enter the country after a brief trip now takes seven months instead of two.

As a consequence, and despite an infusion of $160 million earmarked for cutting the backlog, the number of pending applications has risen by nearly 60 percent over the last three years, to 6.2 million, according to a recent congressional report. The root cause, officials say, is the post-9/11 reassignment of 1,000 agents who used to issue documents and now do extensive security checks of every applicant instead.

The fallout ranges from minor inconveniences to wrenching dilemmas.

There is Christopher B. Murray, for example, the manager of nano-scale research for I.B.M., who had to decide whether to rush to his mother's side when his father died in Nova Scotia last week, or battle for an emergency travel document to replace the one that he had applied to renew last year. And there is William Powell, an American journalist for Fortune magazine, and his Chinese wife, Joyce Cui, who spent most of her pregnancy agonizing over whether she should go back to Beijing to give birth near her family. Because she had applied for a green card, she risked being barred from the United States if she left before her travel documents came through; if she stayed, she risked going into labor alone in New York when he was reassigned to China.

"The delays in processing some of these cases have clearly been as a result of moving so many of our employees, especially in the service centers, into security checks," said William R. Yates, associate director of operations for Citizenship and Immigration Services, in Homeland Security. "We don't apologize. We have identified a number of persons who represented a threat to the United States."

But he added, "Everything else has suffered, unfortunately."

Mr. Yates reiterated the commitment to cut the backlog by the end of September 2006. But there is little optimism among many international businesses and institutions struggling with the problem on behalf of 700,000 U.S.-based foreign employees.

The new obstacles and delays, business leaders say, are already hurting their ability to recruit and keep the best talent worldwide.

"There are key people who are unable to work, unable to close the gaps in their status," said Mr. Murray, adding that his recruitment of foreign researchers at Harvard and M.I.T. had been damaged. "There are family impacts. But if you want to be very cold about it, it puts the U.S. at a serious disadvantage."

One reason the backlog has ballooned is that processing delays force employers to file costly multiple petitions just to keep an employee and dependents in legal status, complained Lynn Shotwell, director of the American Council on International Personnel, a Washington organization for 250 corporations and institutions that want to ease the movement of personnel across national borders.

The council has protested a Bush administration plan to impose higher processing fees to cover the cost of hiring additional personnel.

One of the regional immigration offices most beset with delays is the Vermont Service Center, which handles applications from New York and other Northeastern states. Mr. Yates, the homeland security official, said the office, in St. Albans, stopped issuing travel documents for several months this winter because it ran out of security paper with the department's new logo.

The overflow spilled into district offices like 26 Federal Plaza. In theory, after waiting 90 days for a work permit to be renewed by mail, for example, an applicant is entitled to have one issued in person, the same day. But in practice, no more than 100 such permits are given out daily.

Such problems played out last week when Ms. Barschdorff, 33, passed through the metal detectors at 26 Federal Plaza. She wanted to renew her annual work permit and to get the document that would let her travel safely to London and back to her 1-year-old American daughter.

For her, the last best hope was the young man with the sleeping bag, Kendo McDonald. Mr. McDonald, 28, has worked for a decade as a trusted "runner," shepherding documents and now clients for the international immigration law firm of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy. He has his own measure of how much worse the backlog grew in the last year.

"Before I didn't have to do this 3 o'clock in the morning thing," he said, rainwater still dripping from his jacket. "I could come at 8 a.m."

After vetting Ms. Barschdorff's documents, and those of two other clients, Mr. McDonald guided them into the netherworld of federal bureaucracy. Ms. Barschdorff would spend the next nine and a half hours there, in a labyrinth of lines and waiting rooms.

The two other clients asked that their names not be published, worried that publicity could hurt their pending green card applications. One was a 33-year-old computer scientist at I.B.M. who left India eight years ago to earn a doctorate at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. He said he had risen at 3 a.m. to make it from his home in Mohegan Lake, where his wife and 5-month-old U.S.-born daughter were sleeping. The other man described himself as a "denim consultant" who was born in Zimbabwe but had lived for years in London before moving to New York six years ago to work for the fashion designer Calvin Klein.

Together with Ms. Barschdorff, who previously worked at the European Parliament in Brussels and has degrees from Columbia and the London School of Economics, the trio almost typified the mobility of an international class of go-getters whose cosmopolitan careers help make New York a global hub of finance, science and design. Both men were being sponsored for green cards by employers as "aliens of extraordinary ability" a phrase "that makes people think of E.T.," Ms. Barschdorff joked. But without the work permit renewals they needed, they could be left without a paycheck.

Mr. McDonald warned Ms. Barschdorff that her goal of renewing two documents at once might be impossible. The waiting room for one was on the eighth floor, the other on the ninth.

There are plans for every waiting room to adopt a number system like the one used by busy New York delis, Mr. McDonald said, but for now, after turning in papers to one of the window agents, applicants just have to wait until they are summoned by name. The typical wait is four to six hours, he said. And if Ms. Barschdorff ran up and down between waiting rooms, she would risk missing one or both calls.

It was Mr. McDonald who helped her manage the juggling act, and smooth the way when her paperwork seemed deficient. J. P. Morgan was paying $1,500 for the law firm's work to renew Ms. Barschdorff's employment authorization card alone, she said.

Many in the room were fending for themselves. The line that snaked through the ninth-floor waiting room included a Polish construction worker, a Nigerian nurse, and a turbaned chef from India. Only the chef, Manjit Singh, 42, would give his name after explaining that his boss was sponsoring him because of his skill at making curry for a restaurant on Union Turnpike in Queens.

Some were turned away, but after nearly 10 hours, Ms. Barschdorff emerged triumphant. She had gained both the right to travel and another year's work authorization. Her two companions had their work permits, too. Mr. McDonald was headed back to Queens for a few hours' sleep before doing it all over again.

"Even though I absolutely despise this bureaucracy," Ms. Barschdorff said, "at the end of the day you can come to America."

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