By Thomas Kennedy
When my parents came to the United States almost two decades ago, they did not think that they would spend all those years as undocumented immigrants. My family came here fleeing an economic meltdown in Argentina with the expectation that we would be able to resolve our immigration status by residing in this country or eventually some form of legislation such as the amnesty President Reagan granted immigrants in 1986.
Instead, we encountered a broken and cruel immigration system that leaves people in desperate straits. People risk their lives repeatedly to capture even a hint of the elusive American dream. We saw this just today in Texas, where authorities found at least 100 migrants crammed into a tractor-trailer with no ventilation. Ten undocumented migrants died in the truck in what authorities say is a people smuggling operation.
One of the most common cliches leveled against undocumented immigrants in this country is that they should be punished for coming here to seek a better life and that they should “get in the back of the line” to resolve their immigration status. The truth to these assertions is that there is no actual line available for unauthorized immigrants either already living in this country or seeking to come here.
There is no viable process for undocumented immigrants to follow to become U.S citizens. People know that, so they take recourses that may endanger their lives or force them to live here in the shadows.
The United States immigration system has three different routes for immigrants to obtain temporary or permanent status into the country - employment, family reunification or humanitarian protection. All three of these categories are highly regulated with limits on the number of people who can obtain the status.
Obtaining a visa to the United States for employment is no easy task. Only a very limited number of worker visas exist for highly specialized positions such as scientists, professors, and multinational executives, but none for industries that low income immigrants traditionally work, such as the food industry or construction. Guest worker visas for agricultural workers are also limited and temporary and in most of these cases, an employer must petition for the worker.
Family based immigration is restricted to close family members. My father placed hopes that his U.S. citizen siblings would be able to petition him as a resident, but unfortunately, the process would have taken decades and requires the petitioner to prove certain levels of income that is restrictive for most immigrants.
Humanitarian protection is another option which is limited in scope and inaccessible to many immigrants in need of asylum. Despite fearmongering against refugees by the Trump administration, the United States has a stringent vetting process for asylum seekers. Multiple international and U.S. agencies screen applicants and set numerical limits on how many refugees are admitted into the country. Asylum seekers must prove that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, membership in a particular social group, political opinion or national origin.” Immigrants fleeing economic crisis do not qualify as refugees
The immigration system in the United States does not offer “a line” for aspiring undocumented immigrants so they can begin the process of becoming U.S. citizens. People like my parents and millions of other immigrants spend years, sometimes decades in the shadows waiting for common sense immigration reform that will allow them to lead normal lives without the fear of deportation. Instead of telling immigrants to “get in line,” we should focus on creating that line and providing a fair process for immigrants to come into this country.
A good start is the Dream Act legislation introduced by Senator Durbin (D-Ill) and Senator Graham (R-S.C.) which would grant permanent legal status to more than 1 million young people who arrived in the United States before they turned 18, lived here for at least four years, passed security checks and met other criteria such as enrolling in college or the military.
Although Legislation such as the Dream Act will provide relief to millions of people who work and contribute to this country, it is a Band-Aid to fix our broken immigration system. Instead of more deportations or a useless wall, we need broader comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. It is the clearest way to ensure we do not see any more tragedies involving immigrants desperate to achieve the American dream.
Thomas Kennedy is a communications fellow with the Center for Community Change.