After last week’s column on the rise of “crimmigration” in the U.S., I received a flood of emails and comments from readers that followed a consistent theme:
“Legal immigration is one thing, illegal entry is another. We have a process for immigrants to enter the USA legally.”
“There’s legal immigration and ILLEGAL immigration! It’s not rocket science!!”
There were many more, with lots more exclamation points, but you get the idea.
The feeling of outrage toward immigrants who “break the rules” appeals to a particular sense of fairness and justice, one that assumes that if only people followed the law and got “in line,” opportunities afforded to previous generations of immigrants would be available to them. The perception seems to be that there are two entry doors to the U.S.: one legal, the other illegal — and migrants just incomprehensibly choose the illegal door due to laziness, lack of respect for U.S. laws or desire to do harm.
But what if the “legal” door is padlocked and blockaded? What if it’s only open for five minutes a day and only if you can open it with your hands tied behind your back?
On virtually every level, “legal” paths to immigration have been barricaded or removed — a phenomenon known as the “invisible wall.”
The invisible wall is not a new invention in U.S. immigration policy but it has become taller, wider and more impenetrable under the Trump administration.
The overall philosophy for the invisible wall is summed up well by an email reported by NBC from a Trump National Security Council official discussing asylum processing with Customs and Border Patrol.
In the email, the official said, “My mantra has persistently been presenting aliens with multiple unsolvable dilemmas to impact their calculus for choosing to make the arduous journey to begin with.”
“Multiple unsolvable dilemmas” is a perfect way to describe our current “legal” immigration system, in which an already Byzantine set of complex policies change by the day.
There are four main legal pathways to the U.S.: family reunification, work visas, diversity lottery and asylum or refugee status. For each pathway, additional barriers are being erected to slow or stall migration.
Say you’re a mother from Guatemala, where 60% of people live in poverty, half the children under 5 are malnourished and there is one of the world’s highest rates of femicide. Like millions of U.S. immigrants before have done, you take your children to the U.S. to protect them from hunger and violence and to give them a chance for a better life.
The most generous avenue for immigration is family reunification (if you are fortunate to have an immediate family member who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident) — but the wait times are determined by demand, and the waits for Central American immigrants can be up to 13 years.
The next category, long-term work visa, applies to very few migrants from Central America due to its restrictions — only 74 people from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras combined received long-term work visas of any kind in 2017.
Diversity lottery? Well “lottery” tells the story for that one. The number of Guatemalans to win that lottery in 2017? Just 13.
So that brings us to asylum or refugee status. The Trump administration gutted the refugee program, lowering the cap by a whopping 84%.
Meanwhile, only 31 Guatemalans were granted refuge between October 2017 and June 2018. The asylum program approved 2,950 of 33,400 Guatemalan applicants in 2017, with efforts under way to restrict it further.
In short, even by the most generous calculations, no more than 16,000 Guatemalans were admitted to the U.S. legally in 2017 — a small fraction of those who are estimated to have attempted.
When I asked Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Executive Director Jorge Barón about his take on the locked-door analogy, he said it was largely true except that for many migrants, there is effectively no door at all. With all the new barriers and changes, Barón said it’s now taking the agency 40% longer than two years ago to process its clients’ immigration cases.
“For a lot of people there isn’t this magical door that they can access,” Barón said. “There’s no line. There’s no place where they can submit an application that has any chance of succeeding to get in to the country.”
Why did so many of our European-American immigrant great-grandparents and grandparents arrive “legally”? Because there was really no such thing as “illegal.”
For example, at the peak of immigration in 1907, 1.3 million mostly Europeans came through Ellis Island alone. For Europeans entering the U.S., no visas, passports or papers were needed at all, so screening took around three to five hours for the vast majority of immigrants and primarily involved a visual scan for contagious diseases. They were less skilled than immigrants entering today. The “line” people want immigrants to get in today looks nothing like the line of previous generations.
So you want to go back to the way immigration was managed when your great-grandparents came at the turn of the century? Cool, let’s do it. Not just because providing a legal pathway to immigration and a haven for refugees is the right thing to do, but because immigrants have long been, and will continue to be, an economic and cultural benefit to the U.S.