Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Who Are "Illegals" and What Is Undocumented Migration?

The Immigration Dilemma- Week 4

Last week's discussion of the legal immigration system concluded that there is virtually no legal way for low-skilled, low-wage workers to enter the United States. Migrating, even if you have immediate family in the United States or attain an employment visa, is not easy. It can take years or even decades to receive the proper visa, and the process usually costs several thousand dollars.

Therefore, given that there is no legal way for low-skilled workers to migrate, we can dispel the myth that some immigrants are "too lazy" to stand in line and migrate the legal way. There is no line for them to stand in.

But, as people often asks me, "If they know there is no legal way for them to migrate, why do they come? They're breaking the law. They're illegal."

Now, it is important to remember that most foreign-born individuals residing in the United States actually have documented status. Of the estimated 37 million foreign-born people living in the United States, around 35% are naturalized US citizens, 33% are lawful permanent residents, 8% are refugees or asylees, and 5% are legal nonimmigrants. Only 19% (or well less than a quarter) of foreign-born individuals are undocumented and less than 10% of immigrants in the United States have crossed the border without inspection, i.e. "crossed illegally."

But that said, in this post, I'll try to answer the question: Who are "illegals" and why do they come?

Let's start with the first part of that question: Who are "illegals?" Some people refer to undocumented immigrants as "illegals" because they have entered (or stayed in) the country undocumented, i.e. without passing through legal channels of entry and inspection into the United States or by not having the proper legal documentation to reside and work in the US.

These people often reason that because it is against the law to "enter without inspection" or to overstay your visa expiration date, undocumented immigrants are "illegal." However, this term is a misnomer.

Entry without inspection and overstaying temporary visas are civil infractions, much like getting a speeding ticket. And I believe I can accurately say that most of us reading this post have sped at one point in our life (even if we didn't get caught, it's still breaking the law) or gotten a parking ticket. I doubt that I can accurately say that we would all be willing to let our identities be defined by this experience, i.e. that we are all "illegals" because we once sped our car or violated any other civil law.

But the comparison is valid. A person who resides in the United States without documentation should not be defined by that experience. Therefore, I use the term "undocumented" which describes the immigration category someone falls into much like "legal nonimmigrant," "lawful permanent resident," or "US citizen." Undocumented does not describe someone's identity, country of origin, color of skin, native language, or anything else besides their immigration status category.

Now, how do you get undocumented immigration status?

Just as we discussed the four paths to legal permanent status in the previous post, there are three common ways in which people get undocumented immigration status: overstaying a temporary visa, overstaying border crossing cards, or entry without inspection.

Visa Overstays: Of the twelve million undocumented immigrants estimated to reside in the United States today, about half (40-50%) of these people entered the country through a port of legal entry on a legal nonimmigrant temporary visa, undergoing background checks and inspection by immigration officials. These immigrants' immigration status shifted to undocumented when they remained in the country (or overstayed) after the date on which their visas expired or ignored their order of removal (a case almost exclusive to asylum seekers).

Border Crossing Card Overstays: An estimated 148 million people a year cross back and forth across the US border from Mexico and Canada using a "Border Crossing Card" to make daily commutes to work, go to the grocery store, or visit family on the other side of the border. The borders have vibrant bicultural communities and economies which depend on this flow of people, goods, and labor. It is estimated that a miniscule portion of Border Crossing Card holders overstay their permitted continued presence in the United States, contributing an estimated 250,000-500,000 people who have shifted into unauthorized or undocumented status.

Entry without inspection: It is believed that the remainder of the undocumented population has entered the country "without inspection." That is to say that an estimated 6 million immigrants have entered the United States without passing through official ports of entry. Some entered by hiding in vehicles or cargo trucks (rare these days, given increased inspection of vehicles traveling both directions across the border), others walked through the Arizonan or New Mexican deserts where almost no official ports of entry exist, and others swam or waded across the Rio Grande.

So now that we've defined how people get undocumented status, it's important to look at why people choose to come the United States without authorized status or why they choose to overstay their visas.

Crossing the border without inspection is extremely dangerous, even though it is only a civil infraction in statute. Since 1998, over 5,000 people have died while crossing the border. Most of these deaths have occured due to dehydration, injuries, or severe burns. Many others crossing the border have suffered extreme abuse at the hands of Border Patrol agents who apprehend them in the crossing process or by coyotes who choose to take advantage of the people who have paid them to lead them across the desert.

So why do people take these risks and choose to reside with unauthorized immigration status in the United States?

There is a growing understanding among researchers that immigrants do not come to the United States merely because it is a "land of plenty" or to "fulfill the American dream." Most migrants would actually prefer to stay in their home countries where they have family, speak the language, and are already culturally integrated. However, this is not always an option. Most undocumented immigrants come to the United States or overstay their visas for four overarching reasons: fleeing persecution, family reunification, economics, or some combination of the prior factors.

War, Civil Unrest, and Oppression: Many undocumented migrants come to the United States in an effort to escape civil war or persecution in their country of origin. A fact that is not well known is that it is not even legal to claim asylum status until you are already inside the United States' borders. This means that many asylum seekers cross the border without inspection or overstay temporary visas in an attempt to seek refuge inside the United States.

Family reunification: As noted in the last post, it can take years or even decades to legally reunite with family members through the US family immigration system. Many people therefore cross undocumented or overstay temporary visas in order to keep their families together. Imagine if you had to wait 5 to 22 years to see your child (perhaps an infant when you left), your spouse, your parent or sibling. Would you wait? Or if you were not eligible for authorized immigration status to begin with, would you risk being separated from your family for decades or undergoing the risk of crossing back and forth without inspection when your family depends on you for economic survival? Some may why you wouldn't just remain in your home country; however, given the economic factors of migration, this is not always an option. It may be necessary for one member of the family to migrate for the survival of the entire family.

Economics: Economics is the leading cause for migration to the United States. The economics of migration, however, is not a one-way street. That is to say, it is not just because people are fleeing poverty that they come to the United States. They come because there is an economic demand in the United States for low-skilled and low-wage labor. In addition, free-trade economic agreements (like NAFTA) between other countries and the United States have made it necessary to move labor across borders.

For example, while I believe that it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the United States' relations with Latin America that create push/pull factors of migration, NAFTA's service-sector rules allowed large firms like Wal-Mart to enter the Mexican market. In turn, this put more than 28,000 locally-based small manufacturing firms out of business. Similarly, the introduction of corn subsidies into the US agricultural market in 2000 dropped the prices of US corn so low that Mexico began importing US-produced corn; this forced some 2 million Mexicans farmworkers out of agriculture. Many of these people were from rural areas where there were no other low-skilled job options. Thus they had the choice to either starve or migrate.

While the economics of migration is a subject of its own (and if you're interested in my covering this subject more thoroughly, please let me know by commenting below), I'll point out briefly that low-skilled jobs have been plentiful in the United States since the 1940s. As we talked about in the historical post, the Bracero program brought Mexican workers to the United States for nearly 20 years to meet the needs of the agricultural community. Similar programs programs followed after Bracero was shut down and there has been a need for migrant labor ever since. The economic boom of the 1990s only increased this need, creating one of the largest pulls for migrant labor in the history of the United States. However, the economic pulls of migration have not been met with shifting immigration laws permitting workers to enter with documented status.

Thus, people cross undocumented to meet these labor needs. We are left with the result of 12 million people without documented immigration status living and working in the United States. And while the current economic recession has significantly slowed migration to the United States (only further proving that undocumented migration is primarily driven by economic factors), there is still a need for migrant labor in the United States. As one Congressional staffer once said to me, "Just because I lose my job in DC doesn't mean I'll go take the job of agricultural worker in Arizona." Unemployment and job availability do not always form a simple equation. And in the sectors where migration does create job competition, the labor movement has spoken out claiming that regularizing the status of undocumented workers is the best approach to ensuring that US workers receive available jobs, and all workers receive fair wages and working conditions.

Now, there are many concerns floating around out there about undocumented immigrants draining our welfare system, posing as a security threat, threatening our cultural identity, having "anchor babies," or sparking "chain migration." I'll address these in my next post "Immigration Concerns: From Birthright to Welfare."

  1. What does this post reveal about undocumented migration that you did not know before?
  2. Placing this discussion in the context of our prior posts on the history of immigration and the legal immigration system, what have you learned?
  3. How do the causes of undocumented migration stand in contradiction with US laws and moral consciousness?
  4. After reading this post, how do you think the US should address undocumented migration? What responsibility should the US take for its roll in driving economic migration to the United States?

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