Maria Santamaria made sure to follow the U.S. immigration rules.
She obtained a green card through her husband, came to the country on an immigrant visa and became an American citizen. When her sister came on a travel visa fleeing violence and civil war in her native El Salvador, she helped her get a green card to stay in the U.S.
That process took 16 years.
“If we had not been of the middle class, we never could have come here legally,” Santamaria said. “They would never give a visa to the poor.”
At a time when President Donald Trump and other conservatives are repeatedly calling on people to come here legally, most immigrants have few options to do so under the country’s complex immigration system. Visas are hard to come by, especially for immigrants struggling with poverty and joblessness in Central America. The other main option for legal immigration — getting a family member who is an American citizen or green card holder to sponsor them — can take more than a decade.
Mr. Trump has again endorsed the legal immigration route in recent weeks, amid the furor over his administration’s policy of separating children from parents at the border, saying the immigrants should be sent home and they can try to come back with legal papers in hand.
“I have a solution: tell people not to come to our country illegally,” Mr. Trump said recently. “Don’t come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally.”
The realities of legal immigration in the U.S. aren’t quite that simple.
Getting a visitor’s visa, known as a B-2 visa, requires proving a certain amount of wealth that most in developing countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras don’t have. That’s because the visa application requires them to show income, properties or other assets to prove they will likely return to their countries. Other visas require specialized skills, a corporate sponsor or an American relative who will sponsor them in a process that can take years due to a complex quota system.
Those fleeing violence or persecution can seek asylum legally at designated points along the country’s southwest border or upon arriving at the airport. But tens of thousands of Central Americans are caught trying to enter the country illegally each year, which experts conceded may be their only way to come unless they have a strong asylum claim or money.
“The main way to come, if they don’t have a relative who sponsored them years ago in a family-based category so they may be current now, is they are going to have to apply for a B-2 non-immigrant visa, and they’re likely to be denied,” said Daniel Sharp, legal director for the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles.
The near impossibility of getting a visa may lead some migrants to head north without one. Edvin Cazun, a 43-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, said he tried to come to the United States legally by paying for a short-term farmworker visa but was ripped off by the people who claimed they could sell him one.
When he tried to get his money back, he said they threatened to kill him.
He then fled with his son to the United States, leaving behind his wife and four other children, and tried to cross the U.S. border illegally. He and his son, who were separated for more than a month, are now staying with relatives in Hamilton, Ohio, and plan to seek asylum.
“The company told us they were legal, but in the end, we found out that they were persons who stole money from the people,” he said. “It was pure fraud.”
More than 160,000 immigrants from the three Central American countries were caught on the U.S.-Mexico border during the 2017 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. Many traveled as family groups and tens of thousands of children made the trip on their own.
In the same year, roughly 26,000 people from these same countries were granted visas to move permanently to the United States, the vast majority because a relative had sponsored them. Fewer than 100 were sponsored for a green card by an employer, State Department statistics show.
About 136,000 people were granted so-called B-2 visitor visas to travel to the United States, but on those visas, they are not allowed to stay.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Central Americans fleeing persecution can come to designated ports of entry to seek asylum or seek protection in Mexico or other countries. But that’s not an option for immigrants seeking a better job or to escape poverty, he said.
“For most people in Central America, just as for most people in the world, there is no way to come here,” said Krikorian, whose group wants stricter limits on immigration. “To say they should come legally doesn’t mean everybody who wants to get in gets in. It means they need to follow the rules, and it might mean they don’t get in.”
Santamaria said she believes there are many people coming who, like her sister in the 1980s, are fleeing violence. Others have been convinced they can still reach the American dream by heading north and aren’t really seeking humanitarian protection.
For some, she said, it’s a mix. Gangs prey on children in poor communities and their parents send them north, fearing for their safety and their future. They could never afford to apply for a visa and those who are wealthy enough to do so wouldn’t want to move here, she said.
The 62-year-old Santamaria said she came north to follow her husband, a legal resident who was serving in the U.S. army. Otherwise, she said she probably wouldn’t have made the trip, recalling how she was headed for a career as a businesswoman in El Salvador and wound up getting work as a hotel maid after arriving here. She is now organizing director for a hotel workers’ union in Los Angeles.
“If I had a visa and a good economic situation in my country I wouldn’t come to this country,” said Santamaria. “Those who are living well in our country do not come to this one.”
Associated Press writer Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kansas contributed to this report.