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Legal immigrants wonder: Amid DACA attention, what about us?

Legal immigrants and their attorneys say they are facing unprecedented challenges to come to and stay in the United States under the Trump administration -- and with attention focused on DACA, they're wondering: What about us?

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Tal Kopan (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Legal immigrants and their attorneys say they are facing unprecedented challenges to come to and stay in the United States under the Trump administration -- and with attention focused on DACA, they're wondering: What about us?

President Donald Trump's bid to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a policy that protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children from deportation, has dominated headlines on immigration.

But immigrants who came to the US legally and the attorneys who work with them say they are facing a new world with this administration, where virtually every form of legal immigration to the US is under siege.

The concerns are wide-ranging: Legal immigrants who came to the US as children but waited upwards of a decade before their family could get a green card -- only to be too old to count as immediate family. High-skilled immigrants who have had their visas continually renewed as they wait for a green card who now face new scrutiny. Employers who are worried about being able to hire the temporary seasonal workers they have in the past. Immigrants who feel the administration considers all foreigners a threat.

Lilah Rosenblum, an immigration attorney who represents both immigrants and companies looking to hire them, said she has a client who works as a doctor in a medically underserved area of the country -- a textbook case of the kind of immigrants the US has traditionally wanted -- who can't sleep for fear of losing his status.

"He's up all night, multiple times in the night, emailing me because he's nervous," Rosenblum said. "As lawyers, we can't even make our clients feel OK, because we don't have certainty, we don't know, because never before has this been seen. This is crazy, what's happening."

Aging out of visas

Janvi Mehta came to the US at age 15 in 2007 with her father, who had a high-skilled immigration visa. She completed high school and pharmacy school in the US, but by the time her family cleared the green card backlog waiting time, she was too old to be considered a child under the law, and thus was not given any way to stay in the US outside of an employer sponsoring her.

"I think just like the DACA recipients, I, too, deserve a path to citizenship," Mehta told CNN in an email about her story. "I qualify in terms of all the requirements except for the fact that I have not broken any immigration laws and I came into this country as a legal minor. I have heartfelt sympathy for the illegal minors but I am on the same boat. I just want the country that I have learnt to call home to accept me."

A few groups have organized around immigrants in Mehta's shoes, calling themselves "legal Dreamers" in an effort to piggyback off of language used to describe DACA participants. They have been heavily organized on social media, inundating reporters and influencers on multiple platforms. They are also advocating for a bill that would remove the country-by-country limits on green cards that has made the backlog especially long for certain Asian and South Asian immigrants.

"In general, one of the frustrations that many of the legal immigrants have in the United States is they feel like their contributions, their hard work is not being acknowledged and they're being viewed in rhetoric that's either a security risk or an economic drain on the society, when there's many people who can say, 'Wait a minute, I'm a doctor, I'm a researcher, I'm a developer, why would I be lumped in with security risks and economic drains?'" said Leon Fresco, a former Obama administration Justice Department official who now represents one of the groups advocating on the backlog issue.

'This is crazy ... across the board'

Immigration attorneys are also describing what they say is an unprecedented level of difficulty for immigrants to get routine renewals of their visas.

"There's so much anxiety across the board for the spouses, the principals who are doing everything they are supposed to be doing, waiting in line for a decade or more, and now they have to worry, they have a mortgage, they have kids in school, that they may not be able to stay here because of their green card case," Rosenblum said.

The administration has been deploying a number of efforts to tighten the immigration system, beyond its crackdown on illegal immigration. The Department of Homeland Security says it intends to more narrowly define who can qualify for a high-skilled visa and remove work authorizations for those immigrants' spouses, though officials stress nothing has been finalized yet. It has worked to make it harder to make asylum claims in the US. And the administration has launched a series of broadsides on family-based migration, seeking to cut down the ways people can get green cards in the US further.

Last year, there was a 53% increase in the number of requests to applicants for more information on pending high-skilled visa applications, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services data, while total applications only increased 1%. Attorneys say the requests are attempts to slow down the process and make it more expensive and cumbersome. Denials also increased 35%. USCIS, meanwhile, points to the fact that the percentage of approved applications that had requests for more information was close to steady.

"It is true that we've issued more RFEs recently. This increase reflects our commitment to protecting the integrity of the immigration system," said USCIS Director Lee Francis Cissna. "We understand that RFEs can cause delays, but the added review and additional information gives us the assurance we are approving petitions correctly."

The focus, this White House says, is on what's good for American workers. USCIS recently changed its mission statement to include "safeguarding" the immigration system's "integrity and promise ... while protecting Americans," away from one that said the agency "secures America's promise as a nation of immigrants."

"USCIS is focused on ensuring the integrity of the immigration system and protecting the interests of US workers, and is committed to reforming employment based immigration programs so they benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible," said spokeswoman Joanne Talbot.

Immigration attorneys say they've never seen anything like this effort from previous Republican or Democratic administrations, and they believe it could harm the economy of the US.

"Legal immigrants are under attack from processing delays, additional scrutiny, extreme vetting, so that legal immigrants are finding it harder to come to the United States and employers are finding it harder to hire and retain foreign workers," said Diane Rish, associate director of government relations with the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"It's literally across the board for legal immigration," Rosenblum said. "In the past, immigration never really changed, and if it did, it was slow, it would take them years to do regulations. ... Now it changes every moment of the day."

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