Immigration laws in the United States are so convoluted that it can take decades before an immigrant — seeking to become a legal resident — can achieve that goal, a Norman attorney said Friday.

Giovinna Perry, who practices immigration law in Oklahoma City, said some Hispanic families are forced to wait anywhere from 12 to 15 years to become legal residents. For residents from the Philippines, the wait can be even longer — more than 20 years.

“One of the things people say all the time is, ‘why don’t they just legally come here,’” Perry said. “Well, the answer is because it isn’t that easy.”

Speaking at the Cleveland County Democratic Party’s weekly Tyner Corn Bread and Beans luncheon, Perry said federal immigration law requires one of two relationships: either through family or through employment. “But somebody has to file an application,” she said.

“Before 1996 people could go in and out of the country with no repercussions. But after that, Congress changed the law. They developed a quota system and limited the number of available visas, and every year they meet that quota. It’s created a backlog.”

To make matters worse, she said, the federal government “doesn’t treat borders the same way” and many times, immigrant workers in the United States are exploited or the victims of illegal actions by law enforcement.

“The exploitation of immigrants is big in this country. You see it in the news more and more every day. We have reports of law officers going to grocery stores on Shields (Boulevard) asking people for papers. Those things are illegal — stopping people and asking for papers.”

Perry said Oklahoma lawmakers also “contributed to the problem” when they adopted House Bill 1804.

“Right now, because of HB1804, a lot of people are scared and leaving the state of Oklahoma,” she said. “Employers are scared and they don’t understand.”

Perry said the new law requires companies to “sign up with certain information programs” to verify a worker’s residency. “For state offices and state contractors, the law goes into effect Nov. 1. For private companies, it’s July of 2008 and applies to all new workers.”

Because of the law, Perry said many companies are firing all their current workers. “Then they can’t find anyone to do the work. It’s a problem in construction, housing, hotels and the food processing industries — all the jobs we know the immigrants are doing right now.”

Oklahoma’s law — like those of other states, she said — “is a bad way” to solve the problem. “I believe it’s going to have a real negative impact on state economy. And I don’t think the American public will stand for it.”

To solve the problem, Perry said policy leaders should focus on four areas — better border security, a foreign policy that helps strengthen the economy of other countries, a path to citizenship for all undocumented workers currently in the United States, and more worker visas for immigrant workers at all levels.

“We need to focus on all four areas,” she said. “But right now the government is just focused on security. That’s like saying you’re going to cure a sick person and not focus on preventative medicine. It just won’t work.”

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