Immigration 101

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

In response to a previous post, Roberta had asked about the realities and the challenges of the immigration process.  Is citizenship as impossible as she has read?  This is such an excellent question, which admittedly requires more than my standard 600 word blog post. 

So loyal readers, I have decided to split this into a series of posts pertaining to immigration.  Although not an expert by any means, I have taken immigration law classes, briefly worked in immigration law firm and am married to an immigrant-turned-citizen.  My stated bias in all of this is that I firmly believe that immigration is fundamentally good for American society, both culturally and economically.  If you were hoping for lighter blog fare, look forward to my upcoming guide to the best of British television!

General Principles of U.S. immigration:

Unless one has entirely Native American ancestry, there is immigrant history in your family background.  It is a cliché at this point but there is a reason that the Emma Lazarus poem above has been memorialized on the Statue of Liberty.  Modern immigration law has these intended purposes:

  • To promote diversity in recognitions of the United States’ history as a nation of immigrants
  • To provide humanitarian relief (aka asylum)
  • To reunite families
  • To bring foreign talent

My immigration professor, who herself became an American citizen and holds law degrees from multiple countries, used to summarize American immigration as the most integrated and complex system in the world.

U.S. Agencies Involved in Immigration:

  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which includes the following subagencies:
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) physically processes immigration paperwork.  When I worked at the law firm, I literally logged forms, letters and documentation to the USCIS all-day long.
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which is responsible for deportations and “enforcement” of immigration law.  As a side note, I am highly skeptical of the “defund ICE” movements.  Defunding ICE is the political equivalent of applying a band-aid to a hemorrhage. 
  • U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) patrols U.S. borders and points of entry, such as San Ysidro.  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is a further subagency of CBP.
  • Department of Labor collaborates with DHS to set wages for the professional visa classifications.  Basically, the department is responsible for determining the rates that visa-holders are paid to ensure comparable wages to American employees based on equivalent degrees and experience.  When immigration-critics assert that immigrants “take” American jobs, their argument falls apart easily.  The reality is that there is no economic incentive for US companies to hire foreign talent since they are required to pay similar wages in addition to thousands of dollars to cover their legal fees. 

Immigration Tracks:

Colloquially, we think of “immigrants” as anyone from a foreign country coming to the United States.  The U.S. government has different classifications.

  • Non-immigrants are individuals who are legally permitted to be in the United States on short-term visas.  They are here for a specific purpose (examples include seasonal agricultural work, school, professional projects, etc.) and will return to their country of origin upon completion of the intended purpose.  There are dozens of non-immigrant visas each with their own unique requirements and time allowances to stay in the United States.  Certain visas, such as the H1-B, are considered more desirable because they can “track” towards permanent residency.
  • Immigrants have acquired permanent residency status (aka green-card holders) and have made it through the more arduous visa processes.  A green-card needs to be renewed every ten years but this status cannot be easily “revoked” once acquired, except in some criminal matters.  It is the final step before applying for citizenship.
  • Citizenship:  Also referred to as naturalization, it is the point at which one takes a vow to uphold the U.S. constitution.  Voting is the most obvious privilege of citizenship.  It also allows for running for most public offices and being able to achieve security clearances to work within the US government.  Many naturalized citizens maintain dual-citizenship with their countries of origin; this is typically dependent on the laws of the foreign government.
  • Asylum:  Is an entirely different process than the standard immigration procedures we have been discussing.  Those seeking asylum need to demonstrate a well-founded fear of past or present persecution based on race, religion, nationality or particular social group status (examples includes domestic violence victims, LGBTQ, etc.).  Asylum was created and structured to protect citizens from their own persecutory governments.  This gets considerably more complicated if it is a drug-cartel or other non-governmental entity causing the asylum-seeker to flee their country of origin.
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA):  Enacted during the Obama administration, DACA isn’t technically an immigration status.  It is neither a pathway to citizenship nor permanent residency.  In practicality, it is essentially a legal waiting status for those who were brought to the US illegally under the age 16.  Without comprehensive immigration reform, DACA and the 650,000 young adults currently participating in the program are in limbo.  DHS and the Trump administration have made several unsuccessful attempts to suspend DACA.  The courts have largely sided with DACA recipients.

Does your head hurt yet?  Welcome to U.S. immigration policy!

To answer Roberta’s initial question… Yes? and No?

Money and legal representation make it considerably easier to obtain citizenship.  Even then, the whole process is a massive headache.  Conversely when one considers asylum, the immigration system can literally be a matter of life and death.

The next post in this series will offer Richard’s immigration process as an example of how this works in real life; including a great story of how the TSA officers in the Billings, Montana had never previously seen a green card!

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