Thursday, May 6, 2010

But Didn't They Break the Law?

One of the most common questions I hear is, "But didn't they break the law? Why should we reward immigrants for coming to the United States illegally?"

FCNL's work on immigration is guided by the call for right relationships among all people. We recognize that it is neither feasible nor humane to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States. Instead of lining up the buses, we need to find a workable solution.

First of all, the U.S. immigration system is broken. Sometimes I get asked, "Why don't they just get in line?" For many people seeking to enter the United States so that they can work hard, support their families, and contribute to the U.S. economy - there is no line to get into.

Work visas
The national economy depends on both high- and lower-skilled foreign workers, even though that fact can sometimes be hard for us to acknowledge. As Senator Feinstein (CA) described in a press conference last week, even in a recession certain industries - like agriculture - still can't find enough native-born workers to get the job done. But visas for lower-skilled immigrant workers just aren't readily available. Moreover, the current system creates incentives for disingenuous employers to hire undocumented immigrants, keep them in poor work conditions, and pay them well below minimum wage. This drives down wages for all. The broken system hurts law-abiding employers, native-born workers, and immigrants alike. The "wink wink, come on in" system facilitates exploitation and is no longer sustainable.

Family visas
Families are the fundamental unit of society. But immigrants seeking to be reunited with their families have to wait between four and twenty-two years to be reunited with their close loved ones. It is immoral to keep a young girl apart from her father or mother for up to seven years. These wait times exist because of backlogs of pending applications and bureaucratic delays. Reforming the family visa system wouldn't allow for "chain migration" (you can't bring in your aunts, cousins, or other extended relatives anyway), but it would allow parents and children to reunite in a timely manner. Plus, family reunification does contribute to the U.S. economy. Immigrant workers will be more likely to stay in the country and integrate if they can bring their immediate relatives with them, and most family members come to the United States intending to work hard to provide their children with opportunities to succeed.

So, neither the work-based nor family-based visa systems are working properly right now. As a result, immigrants are faced with impossible choices.

The vast majority of undocumented immigrants come to the United States to work hard and rejoin their families, not to cause our communities harm. But those who would utilize the legal system are prevented from doing so, because the current system is inefficient and outdated. Then, immigrants - and not the broken laws - are perceived as the problem and punished.

When the United States was founded, one of the core principles woven into the fabric of the national identity was this: Where the law is unjust, it should be changed.

FCNL does not advocate for rewarding illegal immigration. Rather, we support a reasonable and inclusive path for undocumented immigrants to regularize their status and eventually earn citizenship. Such a program should be workable and not hindered by overly punitive criteria.

Components of a pathway to legal status

We need a solution that allows undocumented immigrants to meet a reasonable set of criteria so that they can be integrated into the legal system. Over the past several years, a number of constructive proposals have been put forward. An earned pathway to legal status would include requirements such as:
  • Paying any unpaid back taxes
  • Learning English
  • Providing biographic and biometric information
  • Completing a criminal background check
  • Paying a reasonable fee or fine
  • Performing community service
At FCNL, we maintain that this set of criteria should not be overly punitive. In the past, Congress proposed exorbitant fees and other measures that would have prevented large swaths of people from participating and thus defeated the primary purpose of the program.

In addition, this kind of pathway to legal status would be fair - undocumented immigrants would go to the "back of the line." As mentioned earlier, there is a backlog of family visa applications. Undocumented immigrants wouldn't get to "cut in line" ahead of individuals who have been waiting since the mid-1990s (or even earlier) to reunite with their loved ones. Instead, they would be registered, receive a transitional visa, and then wait seven or eight years for the family backlog to clear. Only then could eligible undocumented immigrants adjust to become legal permanent residents and eventually apply for citizenship.

Some special cases need additional consideration. One of FCNL's principles is that the pathway to legal status should be inclusive. This means that refugees, asylum-seekers, and multi-status families (in which some family members have papers while others do not) should be included. In addition, undocumented students (who came to this country as children, not of their own will) should be encouraged to stay and pursue their education in the United States via the DREAM Act.

At this point, I occasionally hear concerns expressed that this kind of pathway to legal status and eventual citizenship would create incentives for more people to attempt to immigrate to the United States without proper authorization. Rest assured: any immigration reform bill enacted by Congress would almost certainly only allow undocumented immigrants to earn legal status if they could prove that they have been in the country since the date of enactment of the bill. If an individual had arrived in the country after the date of enactment, they would not be eligible.

Ultimately, a reasonable earned pathway to legal status would deal squarely with the current reality without rewarding illegal immigration.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the new Arizona law, "A solution that fails to distinguish between a young child coming over the border in search of his mother and a drug smuggler is not a solution."

We need solutions that actually work. Migration has been a part of human existence since its inception. With careful consideration and open dialogue, our nation can create an immigration system that protects public safety and national security without sacrificing the principles upon which the United States was built - fairness, opportunity, and compassion.


  1. Great post, Becca. Thanks for bringing it all together!

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  3. Ah, Becca. Way to answer all the questions and lay out FCNL's position and suggestions in such a clear way!

  4. Excellent post. Please don't forget that asylum seekers, although perhaps not as large a problem as Latin American slip-across-the-border types or immigrant farm workers, are very many, often have been tortured, quite often while helping the US government or military in some capacity, and they often languish in places such as the refugee center in Buffalo, NY. Or, they slip into the street when the time or options or available help seems to run out.

  5. Pres. Obama seems to have taken on the s-l-o-w hiring process in Washington D.C. and made it more responsible. Could he be persuaded to do the same thing with immigration. Bigger problem, but that's the point. The prolonged waiting, often in prison, without knowing what's going on with their cases, is a kind of torture. Let's write to our senators and reps about this problem.

  6. Thanks, Sharon, for your important messages. If you'd like to become more involved with FCNL's work on immigration reform, I encourage you to sign up for our once-a-month newsletter at You can also use our website to send letters to your senators and representatives.

  7. the "pathway components" you cite are a good starting point. However, I am still concerned that the US entices illegal immigration by offering citizenship to babies of illegals, and social services. Once we "shut the door" with new legislation, I believe it is important that we send a message that there will be no more "benefits" bestowed on anyone who comes here illegally.