April 11, 2008

Commentary:

What line must undocumented immigrants get in?

By Cristina Lopez

Enough of the anti-immigrant rhetoric already.

It’s bad enough that radio shock jocks and cable TV personalities demonize undocumented immigrants.

But what bothers me even more is the reflexive response by many well-meaning Americans that undocumented immigrants ought to “get in line and wait their turn.”

What these Americans don’t realize is that our immigration system is so broken that there is no line.

When my parents and I immigrated to the U.S. back in 1965, it was simple. My father, an architect, went to the consulate in our hometown in Colombia and inquired about a student visa that would allow him to work part time while going to graduate school, and have my mother and me accompany him. After a brief conversation, the consulate officer gave him the paperwork for a resident visa. My father filled out the application and paid the fees, we all got medical checkups and six months later we were being welcomed by mother’s Cuban family in Miami.

Since then the “line” has become a black hole. Around 1979, my father petitioned to have his elderly parents join him in America. He believed it would be a speedy process. How wrong he was. My grandfather died in 1985 waiting his “turn in line.” My 83-year-old grandmother had to wait three more years before her turn came up, living alone without immediate family present.

About five years ago, my husband (an American citizen) sought to bring his younger brother to the U.S. with the hope of starting a business that his brother could help manage. He learned the waiting period would be 15 years. His plans quickly vanished.

Today, a hardworking, low- or semi-skilled individual has virtually no possibility of immigrating legally to this country, and even professionals find it almost impossible. It’s not that these immigrants refuse to go to the post office and fill out the paperwork; the doors of the post office are essentially closed.

Immigrants wanting to come to this country have three ways of getting here legally.

One is through family petition, which makes available some 500,000 visas annually and results in years of waiting, depending on the relationship to the petitioner and country of origin. For example, it is not uncommon for spouses of American citizens to wait between two to six years to join their husband or wife. The waiting period for the sibling of an American citizen of Filipino origin is about 22 years. (During the waiting period, the family member generally cannot enter the U.S. for visits, since once you petition for a resident visa you cannot apply for a tourist visa.)

Another way is through sponsorship by an employer. The employer needs to demonstrate that no American can be found to fill the open position. This route ties the immigrant to that employer and often results in exploitation.

The last resort is the annual lottery for entrants who demonstrate a high-school degree or five years’ work experience in an occupation that requires a high-school degree or its equivalency. Last year, more than 1.5 million hopeful entrants worldwide sought to be one of the lucky winners of the 55,000 annual visa slots. The odds make it a true jackpot.

Americans of European descent should ponder how many of their immigrant ancestors would have qualified for entry under today’s immigration system. Those who say their ancestors followed the rules should ask themselves what those rules were. Did your ancestors have to do more than arrive at Ellis Island?

To more recent immigrants who protest that they waited their turn in line, I say that the only difference between us and an undocumented immigrant today is timing. We got to the line just in time, before it, in effect, closed.

When I hear well-meaning Americans tell immigrants who seek the American dream and to reunite with their loved ones that they need to go through the system, to get in line and wait their turn, I have to ask: What system? What line?

Cristina Lopez is a writer and spokesperson on the immigrant experience in America and the deputy executive director at the Center for Community Change. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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