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What The AP Didn't Tell You About "Doctor Immigration"

Yesterday this story came over the Associated Press wire, with the slug "Doctor Immigration." It concerns Pedro and Salvacion Servano, a Filipino couple that came to the US in the 1980s and is now facing deportation. The story is quite clearly set up to evoke sympathy for the Servanos -- they're successful, hardworking people who get glowing recommendations from everyone who knows them.

Frustratingly, the only information about exactly why they're being deported that reporter Genaro Armas gives us is this:

The couple married in the Philippines in 1980, and two years later, Salvacion Servano's visa was granted and she left the country. Pedro Servano followed in 1984 after getting his visa, and the couple moved to Philadelphia.

The Servanos applied for U.S. citizenship while living in San Diego in 1990, but an immigration official noticed during an interview that their visa application listed them as single. They were accused of lying and misrepresenting their marital status, and the deportation process began, [attorney Gregg] Cotler said.

Such a brief and unenlightening description works to keep the Servanos looking sympathetic, and keeps the focus on the sadness of their predicament. But it's also a bit insulting -- as if we the readers are too dumb to understand how immigration law works.

Luckily I live with an immigration lawyer. I asked her about this story, and what she surmised (with the obvious caveats that she hasn't looked at any of the documents from the Servanos' case and isn't giving formal legal advice here) is the following: there are two separate queues for single versus married adult children of US residents who are trying to immigrate. Both are (like practically all family and employment-based immigration, due to the quotas on the number of visas we give) hugely backlogged. But single people get a higher priority than married ones, presumably because single people are thought to be more a part of their parents' family as opposed to the new family that a married couple forms. At the moment, the difference in the backlogs between the single and married adult children queues for Filipinos is 6 years. By failing to report their marriage, the Servanos were able to get into the country much earlier than they would have otherwise. Though I'm quite willing to believe that it was an honest mistake (it's easy to make such mistakes because US immigration law is so byzantine), there is at least a rational explanation of why they're having their difficulties.

Had the story explained all of this (and assuming my wife's surmise about the details is correct), it might have made the Servanos less sympathetic -- some people would say "well, they're queue-jumpers (even if inadvertant ones), and therefore they have to accept the consequences." (To be clear, I don't take this view myself, and I hope the Servanos find some legal workaround that allows them to stay in the US.) But it would have been much more informative.

The additional detail would also have transformed the impact of the story. Instead of being a heartstring-tugger that cultivates vague pro-immigration sentiment, it would have pointed to a specific problem in immigration law -- the complex and often arbitrary maze of laws faced by prospective legal immigrants, and the enormous backlog in issuing visas due to the huge mismatch between our quotas and the demand. This is an important issue to highlight, as it shows how glib the demand that immigrants "just wait in line" is. But instead Armas figured we just wanted to hear about how gosh-darn nice the Servanos are and how sad it will be when they're gone.


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