Though there never has been a real line for immigration unless the queue at Ellis Island is the sepia-toned image that comes to mind. Our present-day immigrants are coming to the U.S. exactly like our ancestors -- however they can and for the same reasons: freedom to be, to join family already here, to escape poverty, persecution and violence and to work for a better life. And there are jobs waiting for them just as our ancestors found work because they are needed to build a nation, to grow the economy. These jobs are often low-level and poor-paying but they’re a starting point – the same starting point that generations of immigrants have used to embark on their new lives, to work their way up and push others ahead of them even higher along the ladder toward the middle class.
The real problem is not so much how immigrants enter the U.S.; it’s how hard the nation makes it for us to stay and work toward legal status. We’re already here -- 11 million of us who aren’t documented. Spending billions more on border security before addressing a path to legal residency or citizenship makes no sense. Southwest border security is already 84% effective at a cost of $18 billion. We pay into this system that builds walls instead of bridges, a system where our mere presence is illegal and our existence alien.
During the nation’s first century, the U.S. had an open immigration system that allowed any able-bodied immigrant in, if he or she could find a way to get here. Now there are many more requirements, including higher costs and longer waiting periods.
The current immigration process is broken, offering few effective options with high costs ($200-$700 plus attorney fees) and wait times that are daunting. The so-called line for immigrants is already 4.4 million people long and the wait, depending on visa type and country of origin, can be decades long. Some immigrants are able to enter the U.S. legally by being sponsored by an employer or family member, applying for refugee status or by securing selectively distributed professional or diversity visas (the 55,000 green cards available to those coming from countries with low immigration rates).
Often times, the wait is intolerable because of poverty, violence and the desire to keep families safe and to be reunited with loved ones already resettled. Many risk it all to come and far too many don’t make it.
There is no “line” to stand in for the poor with few skills trying to gain permanent U.S. residency. Generally, gaining permission to live and work in the United States is limited to people who are highly trained in a skill that is in short supply here, those escaping political persecution or those joining close family already here. This leaves behind the majority of those who just need a chance to prove themselves.
While the anti-immigration forces harp on the “illegal” status of the Undocumented, they do nothing to fix the law, to streamline the bureaucracy or to recognize the contribution of immigrants. While they shamelessly stereotype and perpetuate their ugly myths about immigrants, the nation suffers, not just from a failure to live up to its highest ideals, but to actually prosper from realizing the full potential of the immigrant, especially Undocumented Americans.
According to Rana Foroohar’s October 2015Time article, “Migrants Could Be the Key to a Stronger Economy,” 52% of Silicon Valley start-ups from 1995-2005 had at least one immigrant founder. She also points out that a 1% increase in the share of immigrant college graduates leads to a 6% increase in patents per capita.
Why would a Congress, supposedly looking out for the best interests of the nation in a highly competitive global market, want to oppress innovators and stymie the education of ambitious young Dreamers?
Most serious scholars believe that the bravery of immigrants has its own sort of economic value, according to Ian Goldin, director of Oxford University’s Martin School and author of Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future. “Migrants are a disproportionately dynamic part of the labor force globally. Innovative and entrepreneurial, they create a higher-than-average number of patents, start businesses more frequently than natives and founded 40% of the Fortune 500 firms.”
The last successful congressional immigration reform came under Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Reagan signed the U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 which combined employer sanctions for hiring undocumented workers with amnesty to almost three-million Undocumented living in the U.S.
Congress failed to pass the Dream Act first introduced in the Senate in 2001 and resurrected on several occasions in various iterations until it failed for the last time in 2010. A 2013 bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Senate but was never brought up for a vote in the House. With Congress’ failure to act, President Obama signed two executive orders, first DACA and later DAPA, both offering deferred action, not citizenship, for as many as five million Undocumented, but DAPA is being deliberately held up in the courts as those eligible worry and wait. So not only is there no real line for attaining legal status; there’s no lifeline for being saved from deportation.
Goldin reminds us that “In the 19th century, a third of the population of Sweden, Ireland and Italy emigrated to America and other countries. The U.S. is the very best example of how dynamic a country of immigrants can be.”
If the U.S. is to maintain its world-leading economic status, it will need the help of all those who have, generation after generation, made it possible – the enduring legacy of immigrants reinvigorating both the democracy and a belief in American ingenuity and hard work.
Again and again, Congress refuses to act, to provide a clear, workable framework for attaining legal status where the bureaucratic process is transparent and easily understood -- designed to expedite, not impede, where requirements and waiting periods are reasonable. Immigrants have already made it clear that they’re committed to the American Way of Life through the very act that they got here, often against impossible odds. They believe they’re earning their citizenship every day even if they can’t find a way into the system, even if they can’t find that elusive line.
Research Sources: Time’s Rana Foroohar: “Migrants Could Be the Key to a Stronger Economy,” Christian Science Monitor’s Stephanie Hanes’ 2013 “Immigration: Assimilation and the Measure of an American,” Jason Deparle’s 2013 The Atlantic Daily, “Why the U.S. Is So Good at Turning Immigrants into Americans,” Christian Science Monitor’s Jessica Mendoza: “Republican Debate Missing the Point,” L.A. Times Kate Linthicum: “Asians To Top Latinos,” The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute’s Joyce Bryant: “Immigration in the U.S.,” L.A. Times’ Don Lee: “U.S. Surge of Asian Migrants,” Huffington Post Senior Media Editor Gabriel Arana, Economic Policy Institute, New York Times, Center for Immigration Studies, Pew Research Center, L.A. Times, CNN Money Report, Undocumented, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ July interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, Chuck Todd’s Nerdscreen, American Immigration Council, Emmy-winning journalist/Univision anchor and published author Jorge Ramos, Huffington Post’s “This Land Is Your Land” and Sam Stein & Amanda Terkel’s GOP and the 14th, NPR’s “The Debate Over Anchor Babies and Citizenship,” ABC News, Migration Policy Institute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Congressional Budget Office, American Community Survey, AP’s Russell Contreras: “Trump’s Deportation Idea,” Congress Blog: H.A. Goodman’s 2014 “Illegal Immigrants Benefit the U.S. Economy,” linguistics teacher John McWhorter’s “What Sarah Palin’s Speak American Is All About," attorney and USA Today board contributor Raul A. Reyes and Claudio Iván Remeseira, NBC Latino, AP’s Alicia A. Caldwell, USA Today’s Alan Gomez.