Immigration 101: What it's like to immigrate to the US, part 3

Recently, President Trump recommended a book called Green Card Warrior: My Quest for Legal Immigration in an Illegals' System. The author, Nick Adams, describes how his attempt to immigrate from Australia to the United States on an "Immigrate of Extraordinary Ability" visa cost him around $40,000 in "legal and filing fees" (p. 75) and took over 4.5 years. (This type of visa is a subcategory of the work visa, reserved for people with international recognition of their academic or artistic achievements, and the total sum of filing fees, from initial application to permanent residency, is $3,310. Mr. Adams does admit that he consulted at least three different lawyers who counseled him that he wouldn't qualify for the extraordinary ability visa before finding one who would take on his case, so perhaps that's why his legal fees were so high.) He rails against the current immigration system, which he says holds legal immigrants to nearly impossible standards while "welcoming illegals." In a narrow sense, my recent posts about the paths for legal immigration bear some similarities to Mr. Adams' book, in that I wanted to highlight facts that many US citizens have never had reason to know. But my conclusion is completely the opposite. 

See, I too was surprised by the complexity, difficulty, length, and expense of the legal immigration process. After witnessing the process up-close, however, I came to realize just how many elements of privilege and luck had to be in place to allow my husband to immigrate. For example, if his situation had been exactly the same, but my family had been from a lower economic rung, or even if my dad had been self-employed, things would have been much more complicated for us, and we might not be living in the US today. Many people are barred from this process from the start. It's not that they're unwilling to "wait in line" for their turn to legally immigrate; it's that the line doesn't even exist.

As Jordan explained, immigrants to the United States have always faced discrimination, prejudice, and suspicion. But it hasn’t always been this hard to immigrate. If your family came to the United States before 1880 or so, it was nearly impossible to immigrate “illegally” – there were very few laws governing immigration. If you’re of European descent, restrictions on immigration (beyond a perfunctory screening for disease or anarchist tendencies) didn’t start appearing until the 1920s – and a general amnesty for all illegal immigrants from Europe took place in 1929. A growth in “illegal immigrant” numbers doesn’t necessarily mean that recent immigrants are more prone to be flagrant rule-breakers, but that the system itself is categorizing more people as illegal. (Imagine if we raised the legal drinking age to 22: the rate of underage drinking would clearly go up, even if the number of 21-year-olds drinking declined a little.)

Mr. Adams is not the only legal immigrant to support harsher crackdowns on illegal immigration. But I find this position problematic, especially coming from an immigrant, for a couple of reasons. First of all, its unchristian. Mr. Adams argues that people shouldn't be "rewarded" for doing things the wrong way when he was "punished" for doing it the right way: in other words, he thinks that mercy for others somehow impacts the fairness of his own experience. (I'm not sure how much of a reward it is to live as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, or how much of a punishment it is to be legally allowed to immigrate, but I digress.) Jesus warns his followers against this attitude in two separate parables: the story of the prodigal son and his jealous older brother (Luke 15:11-32), and the tale and the workers who got paid the same for the day whether they started at daybreak or at 5 pm (Matthew 20:1-16). The position "everyone has to suffer as much as I did" is not a true reflection of the Christian sense of justice: as the master said to the workers in the vineyard: "I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?" (Matthew 20:13). 

On a practical level, any crackdown on illegal immigration is pretty much guaranteed to affect legal immigrants as well. Efforts to find and identify illegal immigrants are going to bring more scrutiny to legal immigrant communities, and “streamlining” the deportation process means erasing some of the safeguards put in place to protect documented residents and citizens. Besides the claim about not wanting immigrants who “break the law,” the other arguments against illegal immigrants – they’re taking our jobs! They don’t speak English! They don’t understand democracy! – apply just as much to legal immigrants. An anti-illegal-immigration stance often is based on a general anti-immigrant sentiment. And perhaps this decision was based on irrational fear, but when the original executive order banning immigration seemed to be affecting even green card holders, we delayed a planned spring trip back to my husband’s home country until next winter, wanting to wait and see what border control would be like as the Trump presidency developed its policies. 

And whatever your stance on immigration, you must be aware that our current policies defend American jobs, prohibit immigrants from depending on financial assistance from the government, and exclude people from many countries unless they are reuniting with family or can make a unique contribution to the economy. It is disingenuous and uncharitable to take a protectionist stance when it comes to immigration, but rely on the global market for cheap goods and services in all other arenas of the economy.

Immediately after the first executive order barring immigrants from seven countries, a green-card holder was detained in our local airport for several hours while his wife and infant son, both American citizens, waited for him on the other side. They were returning from a trip to one of those banned countries, where they had introduced their son to his extended family for the first time. The scene impacted me deeply; a few tweaks to the story and that could have easily been me, standing in fear in an airport wondering if my life was about to fall apart.

So, three posts on immigration later (sorry!) here’s what I hope you’ll take away from this: immigrating is hard. It is costly and takes courage and effort. And it is just a simple twist of fate, a coincidence of birth, that separates any one of us born in the United States from those trying to come live here. Rather than slamming the gate shut, profiting from our privileged position in the global economy while refusing to share its benefits, we should lift our lamp beside the golden door.