By Will Ragatz, Medill, Immigrant Connect
(lead in with anecdote about one person’s choices, attributing to the news story it came from)
In 2015, there were over 11 million undocumented, or “illegal,” immigrants in the United States. That’s over 3 percent of the nation’s population.
As is the case with (person from lead), not just anyone can get up one day and decide that they want to legally move to America. The United States only allows immigrants in for a limited number of reasons, which are regulated and have limitations, such as eligibility requirements and quotas.
In 1921, the first quantitative immigration law was passed, establishing quotas based on countries of origin. That would be the system for over four decades until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act – a drastic change in U.S. Immigration Policy – did away with those quotas.
Today, there are two main ways potential non-refugee immigrants can apply to enter the United States: visas or green cards. Visas, however, are designed for temporary residents – people who come to America for business or professional reasons, tourism, or education, for the most part. Green cards, also known as permanent resident cards, give someone official immigration status and the potential to become a citizen through naturalization eventually.
The three main ways to acquire a green card are employment, family reasons and via the lottery for under-represented countries. But because of how our current immigration laws work, those routes are not attainable for the vast majority of potential immigrants.
“It has always been extremely hard to immigrate to this country legally,” said Steve Kim, a managing attorney at RKJ Global in Chicago and a Korean-American. “The entire system needs to be fixed.”
In theory, it seems straightforward enough that immigrants could obtain green cards to come to the U.S. and work instead of doing so illegally. However, there are a couple reasons why this isn’t an option for many workers. The biggest one is that in most cases, immigrants must be considered highly-skilled workers to be approved for a green card. They generally have to have a job lined up with an employer who will sponsor their immigration, and they must meet certain education and experience requirements.
That makes it extremely tough for the much higher amount of lower-skilled workers, especially those to the south. Although the figure is declining, Mexicans still made up roughly 50 percent of all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center’s preliminary estimates.
“In my experience, the majority of Mexican workers are considered to be unskilled, which makes it virtually impossible for them to obtain a green card,” said Emma Mahern, an attorney for Muñoz Legal in Indianapolis.
Of the 140,000 yearly allotment for employment-based permanent immigrants, only 5,000 of those are for unskilled laborers despite the U.S. labor force’s constant demand for those very people. The rest are for workers who are highly skilled in some area. Various subcategories of that group are called things like “special workers” or “persons of extraordinary ability.”
As a result, virtually all unskilled workers who desire to immigrate to the U.S. have just one legal option: applying for a temporary H visa. However, that can be a difficult and inconvenient process.
Because of this, the easier and more sensible avenue for many becomes attempting to get past American borders illegally.
Another route immigrants can take to come to the U.S. legally is through what’s called family reunification. Children, spouses and parents of U.S. citizens can immigrate to the country, although they must meet certain basic eligibility standards and their family member must be willing and able to sponsor them financially.
Still, that is a very limiting policy. Siblings and adult children (21 years or older) of U.S. citizens, as well as spouses and unmarried children of legal permanent residents, must petition for a visa under the family preference system, and there are total quotas for how many immigrants of each type the U.S. can allow in each year. The total number of visas given out each year is typically 226,000.
With all those restrictions in place, even prospective immigrants who do have a family member in the U.S. may be forced or driven to immigrate illegally. Maybe their family member is below the poverty line or maybe they just don’t get a visa granted because of the quotas.
There is also a limited immigration lottery for certain countries that are under-represented in the United States, but that is only helpful for a very small proportion of potential immigrants.
“The lottery doesn’t do much to help the illegal immigration issue,” Mahern said. “It doesn’t apply to the primary immigrant countries, like Mexico and India, and is impossible to rely on anyways.”
What many people who ask the question “why don’t they just get in line?” don’t realize is that because of these limitations on ways to enter the country, for many, there is no line.
And for those that do have a way to get in, the lines often aren’t short. There are so many family members and workers that want to immigrate to America, but a specific country can’t receive more than 7 percent of the preference visas in a year. Thus, backlogs are a major problem in United States immigration courts, with the New York Times estimating in December 2016 that over 520,000 cases are delayed. If someone from a country with high levels of U.S. immigration wants to join their sibling here, they might have to wait more than 20 years.
Overall, the reality for most potential immigrants is that there are no legal channels for them to come to the United States. Even if there are, the regulations, requirements and general inconvenience can be enough to make illegal immigration seem like the more appealing route to take.
- Emma Mahern, immigration lawyer from Indianapolis (interviewed at immigration court)
- Steve Kim, Chicago-based attorney (847-400-8650) (interviewed at Korean community session)