News: Getting in Isn't Easy

Legal immigration can take decades

Jun 21, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Doug Trapp

Local immigration attorney Sherry Neal says many Americans don't understand how difficult legal immigration can be.

U.S. immigration policy has changed a lot since Ellis Island opened in 1892. Maybe it's time to update Emma Lazarus' poem, "The Colossus," engraved on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal.

Today it could read, "Give me your refugees, your relatives of U.S. citizens, your huddled masses of computer programmers with bachelor's degrees."

Emigrating to the U.S. is no longer as simple as showing up at Ellis Island, displaying good character and paying a 50 cent fee, as was the case at one point in the late 1800s, according to Marian L. Smith, a historian for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Not everyone is equal under U.S. immigration law. It helps a great deal if you have:

· at least a high school education,

· refugee status or

· a relative or spouse who's a U.S. citizen or has a permanent visa (aka a "green card").

All but the Chinese and the lunatics
You might wonder why so many U.S. immigrants remain "illegal" when their path to legal status seems so straightforward. For one, some of these legal methods have waiting lists of 15 years or more.

Today there are nearly 12 million immigrants illegally in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center research organization.

"Some of the people who came illegally are doing so because there are no legal channels for them to enter," says Deborah Myers, senior policy analyst at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute.

In some situations, there's a backlog of visa applicants because no one country can account for more than 7 percent of certain categories. Applicants from India, the Philippines and Mexico sometimes wait 15 years or more because so many people from those countries are eligible and waiting for visas.

One client of Cincinnati immigration attorney Sherry Neal waited 22 years for a permanent visa. Her sister, living in the United States, originally sponsored her while she was an older teenager in the Philippines.

In the meantime she became a nurse, got married in the Philippines to a Filipino, moved to Canada to work there and received a temporary visa to work in the United States. She was in the process of applying for a permanent U.S. work visa when her turn in the family-sponsored visa line came up.

College-educated people, however, can sometimes get a permanent visa in as little as a month if they have a job in the United States. Less skilled workers, such as the millions who have crossed illegally, have it tougher.

"You're stuck," Neal says. "You really don't have any options."

There are 66,000 one-year unskilled worker visas available each year, but the workers must find jobs in the United States without entering the country. They also must leave when the visas expire.

"(Employers are) not going to travel to Mexico to recruit," Neal says.

One alternate route is the diversity lottery. Each year the United States awards 50,000 permanent visas in a lottery. Entrants must have a high-school education or two years of job-related training, and no country can account for more than 7 percent of the recipients.

Through the Civil War the United States had few restrictions on immigration, according to historian Smith. After the Civil War, state legislation led to an 1875 Supreme Court decision that immigration regulation was a federal responsibility.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, among other laws, prohibited certain groups of workers from immigrating, although later laws allowed seasonal workers.

The federal government formally took over immigration enforcement in 1891. People could be denied entry if they were an "idiot," "lunatic," "convict" or person likely to rely on public assistance.

World War I reduced immigration from Europe, Smith wrote, but it resumed en masse after the war, prompting Congress to establish the national origins quota system. The Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 assigned each nationality a quota based on its representation in past U.S. Census figures.

In 1943 Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act but ordered the fingerprinting of all aliens. In 1951 the Bracero Program, which allowed seasonal workers, became a formal agreement between the United States and Mexico. After World War II and Vietnam, Congress relaxed the quotas and passed special legislation to allow displaced people and refugees to enter the country, according to Smith.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 authorized the Immigration and Naturalization Service to investigate employers suspected of hiring illegal immigrants and to deport those immigrants. Also, certain illegal immigrants were allowed to become legal residents.

Heating up the melting pot
There's no exact limit on the total number of people who can legally move to the United States. That's because there's no limit on U.S. citizens bringing in non-citizen spouses and children.

In 2005 about 1.12 million people received green cards, according to an April report by the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics. But that's a somewhat inflated number.

Technically, the permanent visa limit is between 416,000 and 675,000 each year, mostly through employer and family applications, according to the report.

There were more than 1 million visas issued last year because Congress has allowed unused visa slots from years ago to be used the past few years and because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) has been catching up with a backlog of applicants.

All this could be changing because the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have passed very different, competing immigration bills.

The Senate version would allow illegal immigrants already in the country to apply for citizenship over the course of several years by paying fines and back taxes, establishing a work record and showing a previous work record, according to Marshall Fitz, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. It also would create a temporary worker program.

The harsher House version would make it a crime to knowingly or unknowingly "assist" illegal immigrants and turns all illegal immigrants into felons.

"The approaches couldn't be more divergent," Fitz says.

No conference committee has been scheduled to resolve their differences, but that might happen later this summer or in December after the elections, Myers said. The bills expire Dec. 31.

The Senate version is more appealing to the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati because it includes a temporary worker program.

"We do use a lot of Hispanic (workers)," said Executive Director John Mamone.

The association also funds 20 scholarships for carpentry students at Northern Kentucky University and supports other job training programs. These are skilled jobs that can't be filled by just anyone, Mamone says. ©