5 myths about the im­mi­gra­tion ‘line.’

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY DANIEL M. KOWALSKI dk@just­news.org Daniel M. Kowalski is a se­nior fel­low at the In­sti­tute for Jus­tice and Jour­nal­ism and the ed­i­tor of Ben­der’s Im­mi­gra­tion Bul­letin. He prac­tices cit­i­zen­ship and visa law in Austin at the Fowler Law Firm.

The “line” of peo­ple seek­ing Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship or le­gal sta­tus has be­come an in­te­gral part of our im­mi­gra­tion de­bate. In a speech Tues­day, Pres­i­dent Obama said that un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants should go to “the back of the line” be­hind those who are go­ing through the process legally. The im­mi­gra­tion re­form blue­print pre­sented a day ear­lier by a group of sen­a­tors con­tained the same re­quire­ment. But mis­in­for­ma­tion about this line abounds.

1 There is one line.

The fed­eral government has is­sued more than 1 mil­lion green cards per year, on av­er­age, for the past five years. But there are sev­eral lines — which one im­mi­grants end up in de­pends on whether they have a job or fam­ily in the United States.

There are four fam­ily-based cat­e­gories for many rel­a­tives, called “pref­er­ences,” and five based on em­ploy­ment. The num­ber of green cards is­sued through each is lim­ited by coun­try of ori­gin, but there is no cap for “im­me­di­ate rel­a­tives” — spouses of U.S. ci­ti­zens, U.S. ci­ti­zens’ un­mar­ried chil­dren un­der age 21 and par­ents of adult U.S. ci­ti­zens over 21.

Im­mi­grants and their lawyers track their “place in line” in the State De­part­ment’s monthly Visa Bul­letin, which lists cut-off dates for each pref­er­ence and coun­try. For ex­am­ple, the Fe­bru­ary 2013 bul­letin lists EB-1 “pri­or­ity work­ers” — su­per­stars in their fields, such as rock stars and neu­ro­sur­geons — as “cur­rent,” mean­ing they are likely to wait just the four to six months it takes to pre­pare visa pa­per­work and sched­ule a con­sular in­ter­view.

2 Any­one can get in line.

Most of the na­tion’s 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants would love to get in line if they could. They re­main with­out pa­pers be­cause they don’t fit into any visa pref­er­ence or be­cause the wait is just too long. With­out a rel­a­tive to pe­ti­tion for them un­der a fam­ily-based pref­er­ence or a job that fits into an em­ploy­ment-based cat­e­gory, there’s no line to en­ter.

Mil­lions of low-wage ser­vice, in­dus­trial, man­u­fac­tur­ing and con­struc­tion jobs are filled by unau­tho­rized work­ers who don’t qual­ify for visas be­cause the La­bor De­part­ment won’t cer­tify a short­age of “U.S. work­ers” — ci­ti­zens, green-card hold­ers, refugees and oth­ers with work au­tho­riza­tion — in those oc­cu­pa­tions. The de­part­ment claims there are plenty of U.S. work­ers avail­able, but talk to the owner of a land­scap­ing com­pany who spends thou­sands of dol­lars an­nu­ally on lawyers to se­cure tem­po­rary H-2B visas for gar­den­ers, and she’ll tell you that she can’t get Amer­i­can work­ers to ap­ply for the jobs or stick with them. (One could ar­gue that the pre­vail­ing wage for land­sca­pers — roughly $12 per hour now in Cen­tral Texas — is the prob­lem.)

3 Once you are in line, the wait is not too long.

In some visa cat­e­gories, the wait can be decades. If the line is too long, would-be im­mi­grants might break the law by, for ex­am­ple, sneak­ing over bor­ders or over­stay­ing stu­dent visas. Peo­ple can’t be ex­pected to wait decades for per­mis­sion to work or live near their loved ones.

The Visa Bul­letin pro­vides a rough pre­dic­tion of how long the wait will be in any given line. How­ever, the fixed num­ber of visas for each pref­er­ence, plus in­creas­ing de­mand, en­sure that the lines only get longer. For ex­am­ple, one fam­ily-based pref­er­ence — for brothers and sis­ters of adult U.S. ci­ti­zens — for im­mi­grants from the Philip­pines is stuck at June 1, 1989. That means that a Filipino U.S. cit­i­zen try­ing to get her sis­ter le­gal sta­tus would have had to file her pe­ti­tion on or be­fore June 1, 1989, for the pe­ti­tion to be heard to­day. Based on monthly cal­cu­la­tions of sup­ply and de­mand, the visa of­fice moves this cut­off date for­ward only a few days per month. The wait­ing pe­riod could be 30 years or more for th­ese Filipino sib­lings.

4 If you broke the law, it’s only fair that you go to the back of the line. If the line is rel­a­tively short and an im­mi­grant has not lived long in the United States, that might be fair. But if, as Obama has pointed out, an im­mi­grant was brought here il­le­gally as a child, faces a decades-long wait and knows no other coun­try, what’s fair about go­ing “home” to a na­tion she doesn’t re­mem­ber to wait for per­mis­sion to re­turn?

Our im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy runs counter to our na­tional ethos of civil and hu­man rights. Over the past cen­tury, we have come to be­lieve that dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of race, gen­der, faith and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion — things that can­not be changed or that we can­not de­mand be changed — is morally wrong. Yet the Im­mi­gra­tion and Na­tion­al­ity Act, by set­ting quo­tas on how many peo­ple can come from cer­tain coun­tries, is an­other form of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

5 There’s no way to make the line shorter.

For more than 100 years, our coun­try had no nu­mer­i­cal visa quo­tas. Ev­ery limit we have put on the num­ber of green cards has been ar­bi­trary, driven by fear more than facts. In 1882, for ex­am­ple, Congress passed the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act, which barred al­most all Chi­nese from im­mi­gra­tion or nat­u­ral­iza­tion. This shame­ful, race­based law was not re­pealed un­til 1943.

In 1921, Congress en­acted the first quo­tas based on the racist con­clu­sions of the Dilling­ham Com­mis­sion Report, lim­it­ing ad­mis­sion of im­mi­grants to a fixed per­cent­age of the for­eign-born from each coun­try who were al­ready in the United States as of 1910. Later, the date was pushed back to 1890. This for­mula fa­vored those of Bri­tish de­scent and dis­crim­i­nated against South­ern and East­ern Euro­peans. Th­ese quo­tas were not abol­ished un­til 1965.

For com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form to work, Congress will have to sub­stan­tially in­crease the num­ber of green cards avail­able each year in ev­ery visa pref­er­ence. This may mean, for ex­am­ple, al­low­ing a one-time surge of visas to wipe out the back­log, then dou­bling or tripling some quo­tas. If we keep our sys­tem as it is, we will be spend­ing more on fences, drones, bor­der guards, im­mi­gra­tion courts and de­por­ta­tion of­fi­cers.

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