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Angelo Paparelli on Dysfunctional Government

The Immigration Line is Too Damn Long (and Slow)

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Steadfastly opposing a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, the anti-immigration crowd has long trumpeted an array of related memes:

  • Why don't they just get into line like everyone else?

  • Why don't they wait their turn?

  • Why don't they just follow the law?

  • Why should we reward lawbreakers who disrespect our laws?

  • Why should those here illegally be treated as VIP line-jumpers and given a path to citizenship while others have waited in line and played by the rules?

All of these questions presuppose that U.S. immigration law provides a feasible avenue to come here legally, that waiting patiently in the law-abider's queue in due course will lead one to the front of the visa line, that even entering under duress rather than endure extreme economic hardship or political persecution -- as many have done -- shows a haughty disrespect for our laws.

The bipartisan Gang of Eight senators who last week proposed a term sheet for comprehensive immigration reformapparently have swallowed these memes whole hog:

[Those] undocumented immigrants seeking citizenship would be required to go to the end of the waiting list to get a green card that would allow permanent residency and eventual citizenship, behind those who had already legally applied at the time of the law's enactment.

The Obama Administration has also bought into the urban legend that a refusal to follow the law and wait in line makes the unauthorized are nothing but a pack of scofflaws whose misbehavior warrants a "back-of-the-line" requirement:

["Undocumented immigrants"] must wait until the existing legal immigration backlogs are cleared before getting in line to apply for lawful permanent residency (i.e. a "green card"), and ultimately United States citizenship.

To his credit, however, the President would partially hasten the grant of lawful residency to the undocumented by ameliorating the wait time for family based immigrants ahead of them in the green card quota:

The [Administration's] proposal seeks to eliminate existing backlogs in the family-sponsored immigration system by recapturing unused visas and temporarily increasing annual visa numbers.

As I explained to Suzy Khimm of the Washington Post ("How long is the immigration 'line'? As long as 24 years."), the path to citizenship for the undocumented under the Gang of Eight proposal and the President's "markers" for reform are far more about the journey than the destination:

Instead of dying in the desert, they might just die waiting to become permanent residents.

Rachel Maddow of MSNBC made much the same point, although her estimate of wait time was 28 rather than 24 years, in a tour de force segment on ungodly delays inherent in the legal immigration system: 

With clear-eyed accuracy and righteous outrage, she exposes the lie of all the anti-immigration "wait-your-turn" memes:

[In] any of the situations in which you are allowed to immigrate this is the difficult path, look at the times, seven years, 16 years, 28 years, 28 years is how long you can expect it to take? 28 years is how long it could take right now for people who are following the rules and doing it right and doing it legally? that is how long the people can expect the system to take when the system works? 

[As President Obama has said:] "Today we have an immigration system that is out of date and badly broken." 

[Yes], we do, anything that takes 28 years to complete, yes, we do. The thing you hear all the time from the people involved in the immigration fight in Washington, that whatever we have to come up with has to be tough but fair. How about tough and fair and efficient? 

A legal immigration process in this country exists for a reason. It exists because legal immigration is something we supposedly value as a country. It is a basis that we allow, the basis for who we are as a country. And it is the process that the government is responsible for facilitating. And the progress for that path regularly takes up to 28 years to complete. not because you screwed up, but because you did everything right.

The reason they say that immigration reform has to be done in a comprehensive way, rather than a piece-meal fashion, where you just pick one or two things to do, the reason it has to be comprehensive because in part, the solution would mean just trying to cram more people through this existing system.

No, the system is broken. Not only do more people need to get through the system but the system needs to disappear and be replaced by something that makes sense. That is not liberal or conservative, that is something called good government. (Emphasis added.)

According to a Facebook comment by my immigration colleague, attorney David Simmons, however, the waits in the visa queue are far, far longer than either Rachel Maddow or Suzy Khimm fear:

As usual, they got it wrong. As I tell people all the time, it's not enough to know how long the line is. You need to know how fast the line moves. Just like at the supermarket. The wait for someone getting a visa today was as long as 24 years. The wait for someone starting today is much longer. An extreme example is Mexico F2B [Mexico-born "Unmarried Sons and Daughters (21 years of age or older) of Permanent Residents"].

The last time I took the difference between the cut-off date and the present date, then factored in the rate of "advance," the anticipated delay for someone applying today under that category was 395 years. Mexico F-1 [Mexico-born "Unmarried Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens"] was "only" about 80-85 years.

The reality is that the backlog created by the IRCA beneficiaries [those who were granted legalization based on the 1986 immigration law] filing for their family members has made all of the Mexican family-based preferences unusable, except for . . . F-2A [Mexico-born "Spouses and Children of Permanent Residents"]. By "unusable" I mean that the parties will both be dead before a visa becomes available. No "might" about it. (Emphasis added.)

The situation of getting "in line" is even more challenging than David Simmons suggests.  As reported by Dan Kowalski, senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism, editor of Bender's Immigration Bulletin, and a practicing immigration lawyer, in his Washington Post article ("Five myths about the immigration 'line'"), the memes about the line are all myths. In sum, he notes:

  1. There are multiple lines, not just one;

  2. Unless you have a family or employer sponsor, there is no line whatsoever available;

  3. It takes decades or longer to move to the head of the line, but "[p]eople can't be expected to wait decades for permission to work or live near their loved ones;"

  4. The legal immigration quota is a form of baked-in-the-cake discrimination against individuals from certain countries that contravenes our "national ethos of civil and human rights;" and

  5. There is no way under current law to make the line shorter or move more quickly -- the only solution is for Congress to "increase the number of green cards available each year in every visa preference".

The long and short of the yarn spun by anti-immigration opponents that unauthorized immigrants and legal immigrants must play by the rules and wait in "the line" is that this supposed concern about law compliance is nothing short of a proxy for keeping people out.  The "line" flouts rather than upholds the rule of law.  It is the football snatched away at the last second by Lucy as Charlie Brown moves to kick it.

We didn't always act this way.  Even in the same year when President Truman officially declared an end to hostilities of World War II by Presidential Proclamation on December 31, 1946 (Proc. no. 2714, 61 Stat. 1048), our nation still welcomed immigrants with sincerity and opportunity, as this vintage film by The Encyclopedia Britannica shows: 

The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, sums the solution up quite neatly in his recent op-ed ("The Easy Problem"): 

The first big point from all this is that given the likely gridlock on tax reform and fiscal reform, immigration reform is our best chance to increase America's economic dynamism. We should normalize the [unauthorized immigrants] who are here, create a legal system for low-skill workers and bend the current reform proposals so they look more like the Canadian system, which tailors the immigrant intake to regional labor markets and favors high-skill workers.

The second big conclusion is that if we can't pass a law this year, given the overwhelming strength of the evidence, then we really are a pathetic basket case of a nation.

Economists generally agree that robust immigration reform will help resolve our economic distress. But before we follow this prescription, we must be clear-eyed about the memes that create linear obfuscation.  We need to create an immigration people-mover in place of the static "line."

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