Kshitij Bedi recently marked his fourth wedding anniversary, but it was not much of a celebration, just a long-distance phone conversation.
The Long Island, N.Y., resident has barely seen his wife, Shweta, in the past four years. She is in India, waiting and waiting — and waiting — for the visa that would allow her to join her husband, a legal permanent resident, in the United States.
Bedi applied for the visa in April 2002, less than three weeks after the couple's wedding. He tries to visit India as much as possible, but essentially, "I've been a bachelor since then."
"There's nothing we can do," he said. "We're so helpless."
In all the recent talk about immigration reform, most of the focus has been on the millions of people in the United States illegally. But part of the problem, legal experts and immigrant advocates say, is a complicated legal immigration system in which the demand for visas far outstrips the supply.
"People aren't choosing to walk through the desert; they're doing that because the front door is closed," said Benjamin Johnson, director of the Immigration Policy Center at the American Immigration Law Foundation. "The only way to get in is the back door."
Some foreigners are left waiting for a visa for more than a decade. And those are just the ones who fit into one of the complex categories of people eligible to apply for a visa. The ones who don't? Forget it, experts say.
"For the vast majority of people who would like to move to the United States, there is no line to get on," said Julie Dinerstein, deputy director of immigration advocacy for the New York Immigration Coalition.
In general, there are four ways foreigners can get permission to move to the United States: They can be sponsored by an American citizen relative, or in some cases, a legal resident relative; they can be sponsored by an employer; they can claim refugee or asylum status; or they can win a visa lottery.
But each one of the categories has limitations. For American citizens, their spouses, parents, and unmarried children under 18 can get immediate visas, with no wait. But any married children or adult siblings have to get in line, and other relations, such as cousins, cannot be sponsored. Legal permanent residents, like Bedi, can sponsor only spouses or unmarried children, not other relatives.
There are about 226,000 family-preference visas available in a year for the entire world, divided equally among countries. (Immediate family members of American citizens are not counted in this category.) For companies looking to sponsor an employee, there are about 140,000 visas.
To win refugee status, foreigners must prove they face persecution in their homeland. As for the visa lottery, it is only for residents of countries that are not already sending large numbers of people here. About 50,000 diversity visas are given out each year.
But those totals do not even come near to accommodating the millions of people who want to come here.
According to the latest government bulletin:
— The waiting list for unmarried adult children of legal permanent residents is nearly 10 years long. For those coming from Mexico, it is almost 15 years.
— For adult siblings of American citizens, the wait is more than 10 years; for those coming from the Philippines, almost 23 years.
The numbers of visas given out is set by Congress; the last adjustment was more than a decade ago. The basic framework, that all countries get the same number of visas, was put into place in 1965.
Some say it is time to change the law.
"Many people feel if we would liberalize our legal immigration rules, that that in itself would reduce the scale of illegal immigration," said Stephen Legomsky, professor of international law at Washington University in St. Louis.
Dinerstein said it is clear that the American economy can absorb more people than are coming legally, as evidenced by the number of illegal immigrants seeking jobs.
And no one feels the pain more than those who are separated from their families.
People like Dorota Szewczyk, who left her toddler daughter behind in Poland to join her husband here. That marriage fell apart, and now she is waiting for her legal residency status — a process that could take years. She cannot leave the country, meaning the daughter could be well into her teens before seeing her mother again.
Or Sam Assatov, a software engineer from Uzbekistan who works in New York City. He is waiting to be reunited with his wife and 7-month-old son, who are still back in their homeland.
"You basically end up spending your life in the United States looking forward to going back," he said. "You count the days until you live together and the days you can't live together, you hope they end."