I keep hearing conservative commentators contrasting legal immigrants with illegal immigrants as if the former where civilized, orderly people while the latter were queue-jumpers. This is based on a big, significant misunderstanding of our immigration laws. Let me make fairly simple a fairly complicated matter.
The average Irish school teacher say, has approximately zero opportunity to emigrate legally to the US. Let me say this again; the operational word is “zero.” I say approximately because he my yet win the lottery. I don’t mean this figuratively but literally. There is a lottery for would-be immigrants from areas of the world that have not contributed many immigrants to the US recently. The areas included are spread over Africa and western Europe. It’s exactly a lottery: You get a (free) ticket; if your number comes up and you are not otherwise barred, you are it. A very small number world-wide is admitted through the lottery.
Legal admissions to this country normally occurs through a combination of political asylum, decreed by Congress every so often on a country by country basis (Cuba, si, Haiti, no), selection of individuals whose skills and talents are deemed useful to American society, and “family re-unification.” The latter is by far the most important, numerically. The skills-based admission quota is so small that in recent years, it was filled during the first half of the first day when applications opened. Our Irish school-teacher does not belong to one of the desired categories anyway.
“Family reunification” offers a loophole. Spouses of American citizens and of legal residents of the US are high on the list of those to be “re-united.” It follows that if you marry an American, you get a ticket into the country fairly easily. Immigration authorities used to look hard for sham marriages contracted only as a quick path to admission. My guess is that they are currently too swamped with more serious issues to pay much attention. Irish school-teacher might make it that way. He should start looking for a lady American tourist to blarney up.
I have heard – but not checked – that the penalty for entering into a sham marriage for immigration purposes was quite stiff.
The conservative commentators’ misunderstanding of the issue matters in the overall comprehension of illegal immigration: People come here illegally mostly because there is simply no other way. It’s not a matter of patience or willingness to go through the regular process.
The relevant figures about who gets admitted for what are in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, available on-line.
Another fallacy I keep hearing in the media concerns naturalization, the acquisition of citizenship by foreigners. With a small number of irrelevant exceptions, it takes five years between the moment a person is accepted as a legal immigrant and the moment he may apply for citizenship. In the interval, for practical purposes, the person is pretty well stuck here; its’ not wise for him to travel abroad. Except for a small number of foreigners serving in the armed forces, there is no accelerated procedure. People doe not fail to become US citizens because they don’t want to but because they cannot, or cannot yet.
If you put together my two factual corrections, you will find that if a foreigner has a way to apply for legal immigration at age 25, he will probably not be a citizen before age 35. That leaves a lot of people in an uncertain status at any time.
[Editor's note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Delacroix's blog, Facts Matter, on August 3rd 2010]