Why don’t they just immigrate the legal way?

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For many Americans, whose ancestors migrated lawfully to the U.S., it is extremely frustrating that so many immigrants come today outside of lawful channels. Why don’t they just come the legal way, the way that my ancestors did?

Many immigrants do come lawfully, of course, but there are an estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. who either entered unlawfully or, after entering lawfully on a temporary visa, overstayed. Why don’t they just come the legal way?

Those are good and reasonable questions. We have to understand both a bit about our country’s history and something of how current U.S. immigration law to answer them.

The reason that my ancestors migrated lawfully to the U.S.—mine came in the mid-19th century from Holland—is that there was no illegal way for them to come. You see, until 1882, there basically was no federal immigration law: anyone who arrived was welcome to make their life in the U.S.; there were no visas necessary, no consulting with a U.S. consulate before you departed; you boarded a boat and you built your new life in the U.S. That began to change in 1882, with the Chinese Exclusion Act, when the Congress decided that immigrants from China—who some argued were biologically inferior to Europeans—should be kept out altogether. Over the next four decades, we gradually restricted further groups—the poor, the sick, the uneducated, those suspected of holding questionable ideologies—until in 1924, Congress enacted a new immigration quota system that drastically limited immigration. It became extremely difficult to migrate, especially if you were from a country outside of the Northern and Western European countries that were granted the vast majority of the limited number of visas made available.

That changed again in 1965, when President Johnson signed into law a dramatic overhaul of the U.S. immigration system again. America could not and would not go back to an era of open borders, Johnson said as he signed the law, but the new law would base eligibility to immigrate not primarily on race or country of origin, but rather on family connections and employability.

In the nearly fifty years since that last overhaul, that system has worked fairly well for some people-spouses, minor children, and parents of adult US citizen and highly skilled workers with advanced degrees who could find an employer sponsor, for example-but, particularly as our economy has grown but visa quotas have not, the system is not working very well today.  Because the quota numbers are much lower than demand, family members can wait up to twenty years to be reunited through the proper legal channels in some cases.  The employment-based system is equally dysfunctional, particularly for “low-skilled” workers: under the law, a maximum of 10,000 permanent visas are available per year for employer-sponsored workers other than those who are “highly skilled” or ”holding advanced degrees.”  The problem is that our economy produces many, many times more jobs for people considered “low-skilled”–jobs that require little to no education, but a willingness to do very hard work–than there are visas.  To put things in perspective, back in 1910, an average of 20,000 individuals, most of whom would today be classified as “low-skilled,” entered each week.

We can tell people to wait their turn in line, but, for example, for a Mexican (or a Guatemalan, a Filipino, a Pole, or folks from many other countries) who does not have a college degree and has no close relatives who are U.S. citizens or green card-holders, there is almost certainly no line for them to wait in: without reform to the legal system, they will not be able to migrate “the legal way” to the U.S., not if they wait ten years, not if they wait fifty years. But if they manage to come unlawfully—and historically we have not made it so difficult to do so, though our borders are much more secure now than they have ever been—they will almost certainly find work—because even in a time of high unemployment, there are certain jobs that most Americans have not proven willing to do. For individuals living in poverty, desperate to support their families, that has been an attractive option. Everyone would prefer to pay a reasonable fee and be granted a visa, but that has not been an option for most of those presently here unlawfully. That, in short, is how we got into this mess, and why so many immigrants—most of them family-oriented people—have ended up undocumented in the shadows of our society.

For a more thorough answer to these questions, we recommend reading chapters 3 and 4 of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang (InterVarsity Press, 2009). To go even deeper in understanding how history and policy relate to this topic, check out the resource page for further book recommendations.