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For legal immigrants, a long path to America

Esperanza Espinola, an immigrant from the Philippines, was reunited with her sibling Leonila Bides, with a big hug after more than 14 years of separation. The Logan Airport family reunion included Imelda Valdriz (pictured).
Esperanza Espinola, an immigrant from the Philippines, was reunited with her sibling Leonila Bides, with a big hug after more than 14 years of separation. The Logan Airport family reunion included Imelda Valdriz (pictured).Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

They were raised in a cinderblock house too close to the river. Every year, they ran for the hills when howling monsoons broadsided the Philippines and flooded the house. One day, the Bides family had a chance to flee for good — 8,500 miles away to Massachusetts.

But, under US immigration laws, they could not leave together. Instead, they left alone or in pairs, each promising to send for the rest.

In America, immigrants learn quickly that some promises are easy to keep, like wiring money home for groceries. But bringing relatives legally to the United States can take much longer — so long that the Bides family was upset when President Obama said he would grant millions of illegal immigrants reprieves from deportation.

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A few days after the president’s announcement last month, the last Bides sister received her visa to come to America.

Leonila Bides had waited more than 14 years.

“It’s very unfair to us because we go in a legal way,” said Esperanza Espinola, 56, on Dec. 5 as she prepared to pick up her sister from the airport. “We have to wait a long time. But it’s OK. Because that’s the way it should be.”

Some newcomers to the United States wait much longer than others because Congress has sorted them into different priority groups. The top priority are the immediate relatives of US citizens — spouses, parents, and unmarried children under 21.

But other eligible relatives, such as citizens’ siblings and adult children, must get in line for one of 226,000 visas a year. Because each country is allotted a limited number of visas, relatives in high-demand nations such as Mexico and the Philippines can wait more than 20 years for a visa. As of last month, more than 4.4 million people were waiting.

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The long waiting time is one reason Obama’s action on illegal immigrants infuriated the Bides family. Though the order did not provide a path to citizenship, it is expected to grant 5 million illegal immigrants work permits and temporary permission to stay.

The National Federation of Filipino American Associations in Washington acknowledged that frustration is common among Filipinos in the United States, who have the second-longest visa waiting list after Mexicans. But the group said it supported the president’s action, which could also benefit some Filipinos here illegally.

“Our own community’s divided about this. Not everybody agrees with Obama’s action,” said Jon Melegrito, communications director. “I think it’s a humanitarian issue. You don’t want to separate families.”

Espinola was the first of Basilio and Minelia Bides’s seven children to come to America from their farming city of Pililla, an hour outside of Manila. She was 25 and got a visa through her husband, whose sister had petitioned for him to come to the US years earlier. After the couple settled in New Bedford, Espinola worked constantly to send money home, first in a seafood plant, then baby-sitting and catering parties.

Nicknamed Espy, she now works as a bookkeeper at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

She waited the required five years to become a citizen and brought her parents to America so that they could also become citizens and sponsor her brothers and sisters.

Some siblings found faster routes out, such as Espinola’s soft-spoken younger sister, Imelda Valdriz, known as Emie, who obtained legal residency through her husband’s job and moved to New Bedford.

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The Bides family, just arrived from the Philippines, reacted to their first experience with the cold.
The Bides family, just arrived from the Philippines, reacted to their first experience with the cold.JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Globe Freelance

But the last sister, Leonila Bides, a dressmaker, stayed in Pililla. She had seven children in a devoutly Catholic nation where birth control can be hard to find. Her partner did not work and she earned a paltry wage sewing wedding gowns and hemming skirts.

In New Bedford, her sisters sent money to make the wait bearable.

But every special occasion was tinged with sadness. In New Bedford, Espinola and Valdriz ached when other families planned holiday dinners.

“It’s just like you’re jealous of people,” said Valdriz, now 48. “They are together all the time.”

The sisters sent thousands of dollars to Leonila Bides’s family for food and school, hoping it would prepare the children for America. Ezra, Leonila’s 24-year-old daughter, became a nurse and a policewoman. Bryan, 23, studied business. Berlin, 22, is an electrician. Barry, 21, was in the Air Force. Hanna, 16, Eunice, 13, and Therisa, 12 are still in school.

“If you have a good education you can get a good job,” Espinola said. “Education you can carry with you.”

But she warned the children to stay single, fearing getting married would affect their application.

“When they find out you are going to America, everybody wants you,” Espinola said. “I told them . . . be patient. It’s coming.”

After Leonila and her children got their visas last month, her sisters in New Bedford said they borrowed money from their 401(k)s to buy $6,700 worth of plane tickets.

In Pililla, the family dismantled their lives, donating clothes to their church and parting with bicycles, cameras, pets, and books — not to mention boyfriends and girlfriends.

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On Dec. 5, Valdriz and Espinola arrived at Logan Airport, along with a rented van for the family. Valdriz burst into tears as soon as she walked into the terminal.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Valdriz said, as Espinola rushed to get a bag of hats and coats for the children. “I just can’t believe it that now they are here.”

At 7:05 p.m., the family emerged after a 19-hour flight.

“Oh my God, here they are,” Espinola said, and grabbed her camera phone.

Leonila Bides, now 54, smiled broadly at her sisters and wrapped them in hugs.

“It’s because of them. They help me,” she said in halting English of her sisters and parents. “My sister tell me how can I help you? Just help to get me here.”

Her children were more somber, remembering the sad goodbyes in Pililla. Barry, the sturdy Air Force veteran, had told his girlfriend he’d return. But Hanna, more practical, told her boyfriend goodbye.

Ezra, the oldest, wriggled into a peacoat and hat and smiled weakly.

In Manila, the temperature was 82 degrees. In Boston, 41.

“I will get used to this,” Ezra said.

Hanna, wearing a new parka, watched her younger sisters try on hats with ear flaps and pom-poms they couldn’t stop touching.

“It’s happy. It’s sad. It’s excited,” Hanna said. “That’s all.”

That night, they visited their grandparents. Basilio Bides is ailing now, and sometimes talks about going back to the Philippines to die.

But he can’t. He has one child left in Pililla, Basilio Jr., 51, and the wait for his visa could last more than 20 years.

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Maria Sacchetti
can be reached at maria.sacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti