WASHINGTON -- Foreigners who want to move legally to the United States face waiting periods of up to 23 years, leading many frustrated would-be workers and families of US citizens to give up on the process and sneak in, according to government statistics and immigration specialists.
Between 3 million and 4 million people around the world are waiting for green cards, papers that allow noncitizens to live and work permanently in the United States, according to Bill Strassberger, spokesman for US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Worldwide, workers without extraordinary skills or special status, such as exceptional scientists or academics, wait an average of five years before they can acquire a permanent work visa, while those hoping to come in under a separate program for family members of US residents are looking at waits of four to 23 years, depending on their country of origin and the nature of their relatives in the United States.
The delays are the result of both paperwork and the fact that many applicants must wait for a limited number of visas available under the law.
As Congress debates proposals to punish or limit illegal entry into the United States, immigration lawyers and advocates say the process is so prolonged, expensive, and filled with paperwork that would-be immigrants and US businesses who want to hire them have little incentive to follow the rules.
''It's almost Kafkaesque in terms of the bureaucracy you go through," said David Whitlock, head of the immigration section of Fisher & Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm that represents businesses. ''Most aliens want to obey the law, they want to follow the rules, but the system is full of red tape and bureaucracy at every turn."
Many lawmakers say the system of awarding visas needs to be accelerated and made fair. A bill passed by the House last fall does not address the backlog of visa applications, but a compromise bill under debate in the Senate would increase the number of visas available.
The current system, which is complicated and cumbersome, has ''trapped too many people in bureaucratic limbo as they wait years upon years for the visas for which they've already qualified," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat seeking to increase the number of worker visas available.
The compromise bill the Senate will debate this week would raise visa limits for certain kinds of immigrants, including family members, and would create a ''guest worker" program supporters contend would ease the backlog of those seeking to come in permanently under current rules. But some lawmakers don't like the guest worker program, saying it would give those laborers a path to citizenship ahead of other hopeful immigrants already waiting.
Frustration with the immigration process is a constant refrain among those who have been through the process.
Olga Noj, a Costa Rican native who is a Boston housekeeper, proudly took the oath of US citizenship recently -- 20 years after arriving in the country. Facing interminable delays for work visas and fees she couldn't afford, Noj entered the US illegally and came to Boston. After marrying a non-US citizen who was a legal resident, Noj said she spent three years and a great deal of money on lawyers and fees to get a green card. The process then required her to leave her husband and two children and return to Costa Rica for interviews and more paperwork.
Finally, Noj and her husband both later became US citizens.
''It's not just a long process and a difficult process, it's a very costly process as well," Noj said. ''It's been a very long journey."
Milagros Abaje-Thomas came into the United States as a child with her mother. She then waited eight years to get a permanent residency visa -- nearly missing Boston University's deadline to enroll at school, where she ultimately earned a master's degree. She now helps other immigrants become citizens as the director of the Parker Hill/Fenway Neighborhood Service Center of Action for Boston Community Development Inc.
Abaje-Thomas's 24-year-old brother wants to join her, but she is pessimistic. ''He's trying for a better future, but I can't get him here until he's 30 or 40" because of the backlog, she said.
Strassberger, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, said his agency has taken steps to alleviate much of the processing backlog by late next year. Still, he acknowledged that those committed to living in the United States legally will often have to wait because so many of their neighbors are ahead of them in line for a limited number of visas.
''There's no simple answer. You do have people who are forced to wait outside the United States for their lawful turn. In some cases, it's going to be for many years," he said.
Advocates for tighter immigration laws acknowledge that the process is onerous, but said it is no excuse for breaking the law.
''Undeniably, some aspect of our immigration problem is the result of the bureaucratic nightmare that exists when you try to get through the system" legally, said US Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who is arguing for stricter immigration laws and a more heavily-guarded border. But ''it should be somewhat difficult" to immigrate, he said.
''I want to know that someone is truly desirous of living here, instead of just wanting to get a good job," he said.
Immigrants in the United States describe the process as labyrinthine and difficult, with extensive investigations of their backgrounds, health histories, and financial status. Many must hire lawyers to sift through the paperwork.
Green cards are issued to two types of applicants: family members and workers. Family members are divided into categories; preference is given to spouses of US citizens, while the overseas siblings of US citizens face the longest waits for permanent residence.
Each country has a cap on the total number of visas granted in a given year, and because more people from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines apply to live with family members, the wait for those applicants is especially long.
Unmarried adult children of US citizens, for example, face an average five-year wait for a green card, while US Citizenship and Immigration Services is only now processing applications from Filipino siblings of US citizens filed in October of 1983.
Married Chinese sons and daughters of US citizens face an eight-year wait for a permanent visa, while the unmarried adult Mexican children of US citizens are looking at 15 years in limbo before getting the document.
Even more frustrating for family members is that once they have applied for permanent residency, the State Department is reluctant to issue them visitors' visas, because those applicants have already indicated they want to live in the United States and might use the temporary visa as a way to immigrate illegally, immigration lawyers said. Security clearances put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have added even more time to the wait; visa applicants in Mexico City, for example, face an average wait of about four months just for a visa application interview.
''This is total bureaucracy run amok," said David Leopold, an immigration lawyer and member of the executive committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. ''Congress really needs to deal with these backlogs, and until they do, they're not going to be able to seriously deal with illegal immigration."
For most workers who have found an employer sponsor, the wait for a visa is about five years, and the process is filled with complications. Employers must first prove to the Department of Labor that they could not find a US citizen to do the job -- a task that demands extensive advertising of the opening -- and then must petition for a worker's visa and pay fees.
The prospective workers, meanwhile, must apply in their own country, queuing up behind many others who also want to come to the United States to work. If the workers are already in the United States on a special temporary visa, they cannot leave those jobs while the permanent visa is pending -- a burden for workers and employers alike, said Laura Reiff, an immigration lawyer and cochairwoman of the Essential Worker Immigrant Coalition, which represents businesses.
''It's a paperwork and administrative nightmare, and nobody does it. Marriott [for example] does not want to sponsor green cards for workers in Mexico, because it's a ridiculous effort," she said.
Even the act of applying can be onerous. In Bangalore, India's information technology capital, there is no US consulate, so workers have to travel six hours, usually several times, to apply in Chennai. In Germany, professionals seeking visas report extensive, unexplained delays.
Claudia, a 48-year-old Colombian nurse, is desperate to see her children and grandchildren, who immigrated illegally to the United States because they figured they would never obtain work visas, even if they waited for years.
''I have so much love that I can't give them all from here, it breaks my heart every day," she said, sobbing over a photo album of her family in the United States.
Indira A.K. Lakshmanan and Colin Nickerson of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Lakshmanan reported from Bogotá, and Nickerson reported from Berlin. Globe correspondent Jehangir Pocha contributed to this story from India.