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'Get In Line:' What It Takes To Legally Immigrate To The United States

Puneet Chowdhary is one of hundreds of thousands of people living and working in the United States who is waiting for a green card. She met her husband in the United States, and they have two kids together.
Puneet Chowdhary
Puneet Chowdhary is one of hundreds of thousands of people living and working in the United States who is waiting for a green card. She met her husband in the United States, and they have two kids together.

Puneet Chowdhary lives in Michigan and researches Parkinson’s disease. She’s worked in the U.S. legally since 2001. She got married here, and her two children are U.S. citizens.

And she’s one of an estimated 800,000 immigrants waiting in the decades-long line for a green card.

Our producer Avery spoke to Puneet, and here are some excerpts from their conversation.

I applied for a green card in 2013, and I’m still waiting to get one. We hear a lot about illegal immigration, but the legal immigration system does not offer people who have been here for decades access to residency in the United States.

I’ve waited over a decade, I don’t know how it’s reasonable to ask someone to wait that long. I haven’t broken any rules or laws. It’s hard on us and our lives. Our lives are on hold, and they’ve been on hold for a long, long time.

And she says that her immigration status has made traveling difficult, even though she’s legally living and working in the United States. After a family trip to Toronto for spring break, Puneet says she was put in administrative processing. She had to stay out of the United States for five weeks.

When I was stuck in Canada, it broke my heart. My daughter was four years old at that time, and we were asking a little child to understand why their parent couldn’t come back with them. We were unprepared for that. My little one who had never wet her bed, she was wetting her bed while I was gone. It was heartbreaking to see what my kids were facing through no fault of their own.

And she says uncertainty about her immigration status has taken an emotional toll not just on her family, but on herself too, and her career trajectory.

I am constantly in fear. I think I have a lot of potential, but I sometimes think I could’ve done so much more. There are so many people like me out there.

I haven’t been back to India in the last eight years because I’m scared I won’t be able to come back into the U.S. I lost my father this year and I could not go home to pay my respects to him.

When I tell someone I’m still not a citizen, they do a double-take. You’ve been here for so long, they say. It’s not only that I’m still not a citizen, it’s that I still don’t know how many decades I have to wait.

After all this time, I’m still being told I’m not part of this place. This is as much my home as anyone else’s. I’m currently 43 and I came here when I was 25. I’ve lived half my life here now. I think we’re losing a lot of potential by forcing people like me out.”

Most immigrants waiting for an employment-based green card are from India, like Puneet, because of a demand for highly educated STEM workers.

A per-country percentage cap is meant to increase diversity in the population of immigrants coming to the U.S. But it also means that the wait time is decades longer for people from India than people from other countries.

Wait times for family-based green cards are longer than ever, too. And the potential elimination of the cap has caused contentious debate inside and outside of Congress.

Puneet is the person behind the latest installment of our series on listener-suggested topics. She asked us to produce a show that explains the process of legal immigration.

What does it take to navigate the legal immigration system? What are its implications for the people who want to get in, and those that want to keep them out?

Produced by Avery J.C. Kleinman


Puneet Chowdhary, 1A listener

Eleanor Pelta, Immigration lawyer, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

Abigail Hauslohner, Immigration reporter, The Washington Post; @ahauslohner

For more, visit

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Copyright 2020 WAMU 88.5

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