Immigration, both legal and illegal is never ending point of contention in our country’s political discourse. Where there were once numerous perspectives on this debate, over the last few years, it seems that these perspectives have two distinct flavors, “let them all in” and “keep them all out.” There isn’t much room for middle ground.
My own thoughts are shaped by a conference on the topic I went to not too long ago. Representatives of a number of faith-based and community groups grappling with the issue came together to learn from each other not only best practices on what the reality of immigration is, but also what approaches could be taken to fix a broken system. In many ways, it was heart-warming to see people of different faiths, background and ethnicities have an open and frank discussion on what immigration looks like in America.
I learned that what I thought immigration was and what immigration actually is are two completely different things. I am probably not the minority when I say that my thoughts and feeling about immigration have been molded and perhaps manipulated by the media.
When many folks think of immigration we think of hundreds and thousands of folks streaming across the American-Mexican border looking for new opportunities here. And in reality, that is part of the immigration story, but not entirely. The immigration issue is large and multi-faceted. We don’t do the issue or ourselves justice when our perceptions informed by short stories shared on social media or the television.
Right now in America, it is estimated that there are 40 million foreign-born individuals in the country, roughly 13 percent of the entire population. Of those 40 million, 35 percent are naturalized citizens. Another 35 are either lawful permanent or temporary residents of the country. The remaining 30 percent are illegal.
And while those remaining 30 percent are illegal, it’s important to realize that that population is not made up entirely of Mexicans or Central Americans. In fact, nearly half of illegal immigrants are those that are here on an expired tourist visa. These are folks that came here for six months and never returned home. Some found opportunity and decided to stay. Others have gotten caught up in modern day slavery and can’t get out. These are the most vulnerable of our country’s immigrants.
The statistics help put the conversation into a larger view and helped me ask a larger question why are there are so many here on expired tourist visas? Are there things inherently wrong with our current immigration system? The answer is a resounding yes.
The current laws governing immigration were adopted in 1965 and set into a motion a system that while eliminated nation-based quotas for many nations, it did enforce such quotas for nations in the Western Hemisphere. What this has caused is the availability for legal immigration status, especially for Mexico and other Central American countries to be woefully inadequate for the supply of immigrants coming to this country. Add to this a backlog of work within our federal immigration system and a system is created in which individuals that have applied for permanent resident status must wait decades for a determination.
For example, federal immigration law allows for siblings of American citizens to become citizens as well. Depending on circumstances, siblings can wait on average 11 to 22 years to become a permanent legal residents and then another 6 years to become a citizen for a total wait time for 17 to 28 years. Remember about those expired tourist visas mentioned earlier? That is a where a good number of these people are. They came to this country to visit a relative and instead of going to home to wait two decades to become a resident, it just makes more sense to them to stay here. In reality, I don’t think I can blame them.
Immigration is an issue that nearly every politician wants to solve. But, it’s a problem that isn’t going to be easy. Any comprehensive legislation that proposes to fix immigration issue is going to have to adequately and equitably deal with the illegal immigrants that are here as well as the current demands of the labor market that will need to grow.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.