Fueling anger against “illegal” immigrants is the outrage that they have not only broken U.S. laws by crossing national borders and working without permission, but also that they have cheated others by jumping ahead of their place in line. A commonly voiced criticism complains, “Why didn’t they just wait for their turn?” Such rejoinders arise from widespread misunderstandings of U.S. immigration laws which project an image of equal opportunities for people from around the world to seek opportunity in the United States. In reality, a majority of the world’s population has no lawful option to immigrate into the United States.
The 1965 Immigration Act is popularly perceived as ending the openly racist era of U.S. immigration restrictions by opening American doors to people from all parts of the globe, regardless of skin color. No longer do national origins or race disqualify individuals from legal immigration, residency, and eventual citizenship. In this way, the 1965 Act masked its discriminatory effects and intentions much more successfully than earlier versions of immigration laws. Some strategies included allocating 75 percent of immigrant visas for family reunification, intended to conserve the U.S.’s demographic composition, and for the first time placing caps on immigration from within the American hemisphere even though neighbors sharing a land mass are the most likely to seek entry into the United States.
Qualifying for legal immigration is a narrow path available to very few, hence my use of the term “unsanctioned” rather than the more stigmatizing “illegal” for immigrants lacking legal status to work and live in the United States. The 1965 law set an annual overall cap at only 290,000. To qualify for one of these highly limited slots, potential immigrants must be closely related to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, qualify through designated categories of skilled employment or investor categories, or as refugees. Each of the last two routes requires extensive vetting and rigorous screenings by entities in addition to immigration authorities such as the Department of Labor, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security. For the billions of individuals from countries without longer histories of migration to the United States, lacking advanced educational or skilled employment certification and employers willing to file their paperwork, and whose homeland states are of insufficient political importance to the United States to qualify as refugees, there is no option of legal immigration into the United States.
As Americans consider our nation’s immigration policies and practices—heated issues that have assumed center stage in ongoing political campaigns—we should consider with more open minds the lack of options faced by the approximately 12 million unsanctioned migrants living in the United States, some of whom have worked and paid taxes for decades and belong to mixed status families. Most have come to the United States driven by aspirations for better lives, some to make more money to support themselves and their dependents and others in flight from life-threatening persecution and danger of many kinds in their homelands. The wealthy and politically stable United States, particularly to the neighbors sharing its landmass, presents a powerful beacon of hope promising the possibility of brighter futures. In turn, the United States has been complicit in providing jobs, homes, communities, and families for some 12 million residents who lack legal status. That so many unsanctioned immigrants have made lives in the United States, and in doing so broken immigration laws, stems not from some essentially criminal nature and lack of respect for U.S. sovereignty, but because America’s gates were shut to them. Our heated debates this presidential election season should acknowledge American complicity passing the laws that created our growing problem of unsanctioned immigration.
Madeline Y. Hsu is the Vice-President and President-Elect of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.