Countering Myths: Il/legal

This is part one of a five part series on countering myths about undocumented immigrants.  Stay tuned for upcoming posts: part two (Contagion); part three (Workplace Abuses); part four (Deportation); and part five (Telling Our Own Story).


by PD

Lots of people complain that immigrants who come here without visas or who overstay their visas are breaking the law and should be punished.  Folks are rightly concerned when we think the system is rigged, when it seems some people can scoff at the rules while the rest of us have to abide by them.  With regard to immigrants, the common assumption is that there is a clear legal path to immigration and that folks should just “get in line” and “wait their turn.”  However, this assumption overlooks several important facts.

First, for the majority of immigrants, there is no legal path in any realistic time frame.  As of a few years ago:

  • “The number of green cards is limited to 5,000 per year for the entire United States for less‐skilled workers such as landscapers, hotel workers, and construction workers” Source.
  • The US guestworker program brings over 100,000 farmworkers and others to the United States every year. These workers may not change jobs, may not bring their families, may pay thousands of dollars to recruiters, and must leave the country when their contracts expire.   These restrictions make them especially vulnerable to abusive employers:

“In one case where workers refused to work until they received their pay after not having been paid in several weeks, the employer responded by threatening to call immigration and declare that the workers had ‘abandoned’ their work and were thus ‘illegal’ workers. Such threats are common and are made possible by a system under which visas are issued solely for employment with the petitioning employer” Source.

  • Various categories of family members may apply to join a U.S. citizen, but the approval process can take many years. Looking at the State Department Visa Bulletin, the dates in the charts represent the cut-off for visa applications;  you can submit an application only if you were already in line before that date.  Although the situation has improved somewhat in recent years, the backlog in some categories goes back ten years or more, some into the 1990s.  This chart from Reason Foundation provides a visual demonstration.  Of course, we know from our own lives that going for years without work is not a realistic option.

Second, we talk about the US as such a nice destination, good jobs and all that, but we should understand the push factors as well.  For most people, leaving their home countries is not like an ambitious branch manager moving to corporate HQ for a bigger salary.  Most people don’t abandon their homes, often risking life and limb to cross seas and deserts, starting all over in a new place with a new language, for anything less than very serious reasons.  (Some reports indicate that a very high percentage of women are sexually assaulted on the journey.  They don’t leave their homes because it’s convenient.)

The same forces that devastate communities in the United States affect economies and the environment overseas even more intensely, including:

  • War, sometimes exacerbated by outside interference from more powerful countries (including the United States, as in Vietnam, Guatemala, Iraq, Afghanistan)
  • Pervasive crime – in this hemisphere, the dominance of organized crime is related not only to corrupt elites and widespread poverty, but also to US weapons supply and the demand for drugs. Every year drug gangs murder tens of thousands of Mexicans in order to keep US consumers entertained or strung out.
  • Computer-fast capital flows and the beggar-thy-neighbor model of global trade, pitting communities across the globe against each other in a competition to see who can sell their workers and natural resources the cheapest. Just as one example, by letting big agribusiness move into Mexico, the NAFTA trade deal displaced hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers.
  • Intensifying droughts and floods, moonscapes left by irresponsible timber and mining companies, massive pollution – just look at the pictures coming out of Rio, years after they started cleaning up for the Olympics – again related to policies by governments around the world.

The UN reckons there are about 65 million refugees desperate to find new homes, and these are the very neediest.  That number doesn’t count over a billion people who try to survive on less than $2 a day.  And for the foreseeable future, most of these push factors are only going to get worse.

So when we talk about “consequences” and punishing people for not waiting in a non-existent line, we might consider the consequences people face by staying in situations of intense poverty and violence.

Third, how much we demand people stick to the law should depend very much on:

  1. How much say we have in making the law. For instance, it’s very likely we would have gotten a new comprehensive immigration reform law a couple years ago, but the Speaker of the House refused to bring it to a vote.
  2. How fair the law is in the first place. Fairness is closely related to how enforceable a law can be, and an unenforceable law is inherently unjust. When the system cannot apply the law equally to all it increases the likelihood for corruption, among other bad effects.  Some of our drug laws fall into this category.)  In my lifetime we had laws prohibiting black people and white people from marrying each other.  In some countries today you can get jailed or killed for blasphemy.  I do not applaud punishment for people who break laws like this.

We might also consider which comparable offenses in US law merit tearing people from their jobs, homes, and families, by intent forever.  Immigrant children, of course, have no say at all in whether to come here.

Fourth, folks worried about legality should be happy to support comprehensive immigration reform.  But that’s not often the case, is it?  I often hear, “I don’t mind the folks who come here legally,” but many of the people who say that also adamantly oppose any real legal path for most immigrants.  It makes me wonder if some people use the “illegals” argument as a cover for other concerns.

Finally, what makes us so special?  We do nothing to be born where we are born.   Why do we think we deserve jobs and security, but millions of other folks do not?  I think if I were born in Guatemala I would do exactly what so many Guatemalans do – immigrate by any means necessary.

For sure, immigration can be disruptive, but it’s much more a symptom than the cause of the many many economic, environmental and technological changes we face.  So we ought to figure out policies that anticipate, minimize, and compensate for possible problems, and stop blaming the victims.  We have a right and a responsibility to manage immigration, for the same reason we have stoplights—to make sure everyone gets home safely.  But the notion that somehow I deserve a good life just because of where I was born, that it’s not only possible but perfectly normal to sit back and enjoy all my stuff as I watch the rest of the world struggle to find homes and work—I can’t get behind that.



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