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Experts Explain Everything To Know About Immigration In A Nutshell

“Documented or undocumented” barely skims the surface.


Immigration is the subject of many heated arguments in the United States, serving as fodder for disagreement on presidential debate stages or *cough* at your family’s Thanksgiving festivities. With so many headlines and policies revolving around this contentious topic, it can be intimidating to learn more about immigration and approach these conversations with confidence — but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Elite Daily spoke to two experts on immigration law and policy about what you should know when it comes to immigration, ranging from myths and misconceptions to what immigrating to this country actually entails. Hiroshi Motomura is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, and the faculty co-director of the school’s Center for Immigration Law and Policy. Julia Gelatt is a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, where she focuses on the legal immigration system and demographic trends around immigration. Here is what they have to say about how the immigration system works, who immigrants are, and why it all matters.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the basics. Can you walk me through how the immigration system is supposed to work?

HM: Typically people who want to come to the United States have to find someone who’s going to file the petition paperwork for them. A U.S. citizen can file on behalf of their foreign spouse, or a U.S. employer can file the paperwork to say, “I want to hire this person from another country.” So step one is having the relationship between petitioner and immigrant recognized. Then the immigrant has to wait in line. The number of immigrants allowed at a time is limited in almost all categories of qualifying relationships. If the number of would-be immigrants who qualify for a category exceeds the supply of immigrant visas approved by Congress, then would-be immigrants have to “wait in line” until more visas in that category are available.

So you file a petition, you have to wait in line, you get your visa, which is permission to enter the country. Then, in the United States, you get a green card, which denotes permanent resident status. The fifth step is if you want to become a citizen, and you can apply to become a citizen after five years. You don’t have to become a citizen; you could just live your entire life as a green card holder living in the United States without ever becoming a citizen.

In practice, does it actually work like it’s supposed to?

HM: One thing that doesn’t fit in practice is the processing times can be really long. I made it sound like you follow this paperwork and it’s approved instantaneously — sometimes, it could take a very long time, up to 20 years. The longest lines are for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens. That was the case even before COVID, and now it’s worse in terms of wait periods. There are also a lot of people who want to come to the United States and who are wanted in the United States, either by their relatives or because of a job offer, but who have no line to stand in. There are very few (almost no) immigrant visas available based on working in the United States unless you have a college degree, and anything less than a master’s degree means a long wait. This really reduces immigration opportunities for skilled workers, like people in trades, and also less-skilled workers who could readily find work here. There are millions of people who don’t qualify. It’s a mismatch between the economic needs of this country and the immigration categories we offer.

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Can you give me an overview of the history of immigration in the United States? How has it changed over time?

HM: Before 1875, the federal government was not in the business of regulating the national border. That was left up to states and local governments. The first federal law to define who was barred from admission to the United States was adopted in 1875. Before then, the federal government did almost nothing to regulate the border or the admission of noncitizens. The reason was slavery: It was impossible to have a federal law regulating the movement of people when the United States did not have a uniform view of who is a “person” and who is “property” (as a slave). In 1875, the federal government jumped in with the Page Act, which gave U.S. government employees the ability to limit the immigration of Chinese women. This law also barred people with certain criminal convictions regardless of their country of origin, and over time it created categories and lines.

JG: The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 barred Chinese immigration to the United States, and it was the beginning of a lot of prohibitions on Asian immigration to the United States. Closely related is the 1917 Immigration Act, which banned immigration from most Asian countries to the United States. There weren’t any numerical caps on immigration until the Emergency Quota Act in 1921. The 1921 law set total annual immigration at 350,000, and immigration from any one country was limited to 3% of the number of immigrants from that same country who were within the United States as of the 1910 census. And Asian immigrants were still barred from entering.

With these immigration restrictions and then with the Great Depression, immigration to the United States was really low for several decades, until the United States revised its immigration laws in a major way in 1965 and got rid of all of those discriminatory per-country caps and set the same level of immigration from all countries in the world. And with that change, we saw really quick increases in immigration from countries like China and India, from parts of Latin America, from the Caribbean, and other parts of the world.

HM: There have been ever-changing lists of categories people had to fit into to come into the country. A lot of them were based on family connections, a lot of them were based on jobs, but also a lot of them were restricted by race. Immigration has been restricted by race, very explicitly, from 1875 to 1965. Since 1965, there’s still been discrimination in the laws, but it’s more subtle forms of discrimination.

JG: The United States is often described as “a nation of immigrants” and aside from Native Americans, people came from other places, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. But that hasn’t stopped Americans from being skeptical about immigration at different points in history, and the group facing skepticism has changed over time. At some point, people were wary of German immigrants coming to the United States and thought they would be a negative influence on the country. And then it was Eastern European Jews who were viewed skeptically, or Italians, or Poles. In more recent decades, people have been skeptical about Mexican immigrants or Chinese immigrants or Indian immigrants. But immigrants today are approaching a new high as a percentage of the population — foreign-born residents make up 13.7% of U.S. residents as of 2019 — which affects the perception of immigration.

What are some of the biggest myths or misconceptions about immigration in this country?

JG: People have an inflated sense of how many immigrants are in the United States illegally. Three-quarters of immigrants in the United States are legal immigrants. A little more than a quarter of those are lawful permanent residents, so people with green cards, and then 44% are naturalized citizens. Less than one quarter of immigrants in the United States are unauthorized immigrants, also sometimes called “undocumented” or “illegal” immigrants.

Another thing that comes up a lot is the question of why people who are in the country without authorization don’t just fix their paperwork, or get in line and get legal status. And the answer is most people have no way to fix their immigration status. In order to get legal status in the United States, you need to have an employer or a family member who is a U.S. citizen, or [someone] who has a green card to sponsor you for immigration. But if you’ve been in the United States without authorization, in many cases you have to leave the country for 10 years before you’re eligible to get some kind of legal visa in the United States. So when people say, “Why don’t people just fix their status,” even if they have a way to do so, they might need to be separated from their family for 10 years, to go back to a country where they may or may not still have ties, in order to fix their status.

HM: One of the big misconceptions is that everyone has a line to stand in, and that we have lines for the people we need. There are people whose work is really needed in this country — such as those who work in certain trade jobs — but who have no line to stand in. Related is the whole question of whether immigrants take jobs from Americans. There’s a consensus among economists that immigrants really help the economy as a whole. There’s a perception that U.S. workers are being hurt by immigration — actually, they’re being hurt by a lot of different things that have nothing to do with immigration. They’re hurt by the weakness of unions, they’re hurt by automation, they’re hurt by global competition, and so on. On a list of things hurting U.S workers economically, I would put immigration, at the highest, at position number four or five.

Another myth is this country can’t absorb more immigrants. Just under 45 million immigrants lived in the United States as of 2019. There are many parts in the United States that are very sparsely populated and would really benefit from the people we could let in. I think the reason for this myth is there’s always been a fear of difference and the unfamiliar.

Broadly speaking, what impact does immigration have on American culture?

JG: Immigration since 1965 has really reshaped the United States. Before 1965, immigration policy was based on laws from 1924 and 1952 that set low annual limits on per-country immigration as well as immigration overall, and greatly favored immigration from Northern and Western Europe. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act removed discriminatory national origins quotas, and set the same per-country cap on immigration from all parts of the world. This made it possible, for the first time since 1921, for large numbers of permanent, legal immigrants to come to the United States from various parts of Asia. By 1980, the majority of immigrants coming to the United States were from Asia and Latin America.

As of 2019, the countries sending the most immigrants to the United States were Mexico, India, China, the Philippines, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Korea. Now, we are a much more diverse country than we were in the 1950s, in race/ethnicity, language, traditions, and in other ways. That affects every aspect of life. In the 1950s, 10.3 million people in the United States were foreign-born, as opposed to more than 40 million people in 2020. It affects the food we eat, the restaurants around us, what’s in our grocery stores. It affects the music we listen to, the literature we read, the movies we watch.

Immigration is also a force that really keeps our labor force growing and keeps our economy growing and strong in the United States. Around 65% of foreign-born adults participated in the U.S. labor force in 2020. Without immigration, the working-age population in the United States would be shrinking, as Americans have fewer babies, on average, and older generations age into their retirement years. Immigrants and their children are driving all growth in the working age population in the United States, and so growth of the labor force is driven by immigration. Because immigrants move to where job openings are located, they can help address the mismatch between workers and jobs.

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What are some of the most impactful laws and policies either currently on the books or under discussion by legislators?

HM: One thing that’s under debate is whether to give legal status to people who don’t have it. There’s a lot of legislative proposals being debated, including efforts to provide a pathway first to lawful permanent resident status and then to citizenship for DACA recipients and provisions for high-skilled immigrants. Then there’s a bunch of laws and policies relating to the border and whether people should be allowed to apply for asylum. The Biden administration is attempting to repeal a Trump-era policy known as “Remain in Mexico,” which forced people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico to find out if they had been accepted into the United States. Other controversies include the narrowing of eligibility for asylum (which the Biden administration has attempted to reverse) — and detention of asylum seekers. The Trump administration basically closed the border, so Congress is debating approaches to border policy and even whether to build a wall at the Southern border, so that’s another big area of contention.

But the biggest thing right now in terms of active debate in Congress is what to do with the 10 million people in this country who don’t have papers. That’s been an ongoing debate in Congress for at least 20 years. There are many earlier similar proposals going back several decades. The last time there was a legalization or amnesty program was 1986, when Congress enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act and former President Ronald Reagan signed it into law. This law granted amnesty to about 2.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

We’ve talked about some of the hurdles faced by both legal and undocumented immigrants coming into this country. Are there any other groups of immigrants we should be thinking about in this conversation?

HM: Since World War II, there’s been a completely separate stream of people who are let in as refugees. There are basically four groups of people who come in: The first two are immigrants who are able to enter the United States legally based on family connections and based on jobs. Another group is based on refugee status, which refers to people who seek resettlement in the United States because they are persecuted or may be persecuted in their home countries. And the last one is by lottery: There’s about 50,000 people per year who are admitted by random lottery drawings.

JG: Refugees apply through international organizations for protection in other countries, including the United States. They come to the United States with legal status as a refugee, and are eligible for a host of resettlement services. After a year, they’re eligible to apply for permanent resident status, and then are on a path to citizenship in the United States. So it’s a pretty clear path to legal status.

The other humanitarian piece we didn’t really touch on is asylum seekers. Whereas refugees are screened for their need for protection outside of the United States and then are formally resettled in the United States if they are deemed eligible, we also offer protection for people who are already on U.S. soil who have a well-founded fear of persecution if they return to their home country. These people apply for asylum after physically arriving in the United States on a plane, as a tourist, or in some other status, including by crossing at the U.S.-Mexico border. The asylum process is not at all a straightforward path because it’s severely backlogged. People wait years before they’re able to have their asylum claims heard. During the 2019 fiscal year, people from China, Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, and India made up the majority of asylum seekers who were successfully admitted into the United States.

What can young people who care about immigration and immigrants’ rights do to effect change?

HM: The first thing I’d say is there’s no real template for getting involved in change. But anyone getting involved should be working to move in the direction they think is right long-term as opposed to demanding things pay off this year or next year. So many changes in history — even the most dramatic ones — have been changes the people involved did not foresee. You never know what’s going to happen. The most important thing is to move the world in the direction you may think is right, without being motivated by immediate gratification.