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Between a rock and a hard place

Why our current laws and policies put immigrants in an impossible situation

Let's get down to the hard facts and quit beating around the bush. The minimum wage in Mexico [1] is around 50 pesos (or less than $5) per day. Approximately one Mexican worker in five works for the minimum wage. The average wage is around two and half times that amount or $12.50 per day. A combination of unemployment and underemployment probably affects close to a quarter of the workforce. Meanwhile, the cost of living, while lower than in the U.S., is nowhere near that much lower. Things in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and other places can be even worse.

Even in extremely low-cost, low-income areas, people must often live in extremely crowded and unpleasant housing with limited services, little opportunity, little entertainment, etc…. Save for the ties of family and homeland it's a bad situation that just about any normal person with hopes and dreams would think about trying to escape – especially when the world's wealthiest and freest country is right next door offering millions of jobs [2], comparatively hospitable places to live and all the consumerism you can shake a stick at. Put yourself in that place for a second. Think about your children and their hopes and dreams and prospects. If you're honest with yourself, you must conclude that the real question isn't "why do they come?" it's "why don't more come?" 

But "doggone it," you say, "I understand things are bad down there, but why do people have to cut in line and come here illegally? We have a system for people who want to immigrate to this country. My grandparents came through Ellis Island. Why can't these people play by the rules?"

A very high wall

Well, one important answer to these questions is this: There really isn't a system of useful or meaningful rules – especially for economic refugees, which is what so many of the people coming from Mexico and Central America really are.

Recently, Sr. Attracta Kelly, a Dominican nun and attorney who heads the North Carolina Justice Center's Immigrants Legal Assistance Project [3] authored an article for a publication of the North Carolina Council of Churches [4]. In it she spelled out the specific list of ways in which a would-be immigrant can lawfully come to and stay in the United States. You may be surprised to see what a short and narrow list it is. Here are the highlights from that article:

"Contrary to what seems to be a common misperception, an immigrant can acquire legal status in the United States in only a limited number of ways….The most common way for an immigrant to obtain legal status is through an application filed by a Family Member. The Family Member category is, in turn, divided into two general areas:

1) A current United States Citizen (USC) may apply for his/her spouse, children (under 21), and parents. This is called the Immediate Relative Category. Such applicants can acquire legal status relatively quickly (usually in as little as one year).

2) The second most common way for an immigrant to obtain legal status is through the Preference Category. A USC may also apply for his or her unmarried sons and daughters (21 and over). Processing usually takes about six years (unless the petitioner is from Mexico or the Philippines, in which case it takes about 15 years). A USC may apply for married sons and daughters, but processing takes about eight years (18 years for petitioners from the Philippines and Mexico). A USC over 21 may apply for siblings with a waiting period of about 11 years (with Mexico, the waiting period is 14 and with the Philippines it's 22 years).

A Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) who has not yet become a naturalized citizen may apply for his or her spouse and children and for unmarried sons and daughters. The waiting periods to get legal status for applicants in this category range from six to 20 years, depending on the nature of the family relationship and the applicant's country of origin.

It's important to note that just because the spouse or parent has filed a petition for their family member in this Preference Category, it does not give the family member any immediate legal right to live in the United States. Under the law, the family member must wait until the designated number of years has expired.

A second path to legal status involves a petition filed by an Employer for a necessary skilled worker. This process must first be approved by the United States Department of Labor after the employer has established that there is no citizen or legal permanent resident worker available to fill the particular position.

A third way for an immigrant to gain Legal Permanent Resident status is to first obtain refugee/asylum status. To qualify for asylum one must prove that he or she was the victim of persecution in his or her home country under one of the five protected areas (race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion). An applicant must apply within the year one enters the US. It is a very time-consuming process because one has to document all allegations of persecution. It is always difficult to find such documentation. Often, attorneys try to get it through State Department Reports and other international news sources, in affidavits from country experts and from whatever sources we can find to show that this particular individual was targeted and would most likely be targeted if he/she returned to the home country.

Finally, immigration law also allows a limited number of persons in very specific categories to self-petition – that is to apply for legal status on their own behalf. This includes: 1) certain specified groups of Salvadorans and Guatemalans, 2) persons afforded protection under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), 3) a category known as "Special Immigrant Juveniles" (these are children who have been neglected, abused or abandoned by their parents), 4) victims of human trafficking, and 5) certain victims of other crimes.

Other than the ways mentioned in this article, it is currently almost impossible for an immigrant to attain legal status in the US. And as noted above, even for those who may be able to attain legal status, the waiting period can be measured in decades, not in months or years."

In other words…

There are no realistic rules. If you are simply a struggling young man or woman from the Mexican countryside who is confronting a life of grinding poverty despite a willingness to work hard and dreams for yourself and your children, you literally have ZERO prospects for obtaining legal status at any point in the foreseeable future unless you have a very close family connection to a citizen. Indeed, this is also true even if you are someone who came to this country as a tiny baby, lived here all of your life, and are a model member of the community!

If you're surprised by this reality and maybe even a little perplexed, just imagine that you're the would-be immigrant. Now imagine that your language skills are limited, your understanding of ins and outs of U.S. immigration law is non-existent and that some authoritative person with some apparent connection to a respectable employer is offering to take care of everything if you just "sign here."      

Anti-immigrant zealots [5] and opportunists [6] may trot out their tired and hateful clichés ("what part of illegal don't you understand?") and try to portray things as a matter of dishonest "aliens" consciously violating a bright line law so that they can come to this country and take something away from the people whose ancestors got here first, but any fair reading of the law and the reality on the ground makes clear that this is hogwash.

Until, the United States government gets off its duff and enacts comprehensive immigration reform that provides some realistic path to legal status (or at least until some bullying North Carolina sheriff decides to start handcuffing and arresting actual employers rather than harmless and well-loved librarians [7]) it's simply ridiculous, cruel and hypocritical to attempt to stem the immigrant tide by subjecting the immigrants and their children to harsh punishment – especially those who have lived here for years as productive members of our society.

If America and North Carolina can only "defend" themselves by causing good and hardworking human beings and their children to suffer, one must wonder whether there's something rotten at the core of the system that's supposedly under assault.