Historically, America has prided itself as being a nation of immigrants. Many Americans celebrate both the traditions of the United States and the
traditions of the countries from which their ancestors originally came. I have been a practicing immigration attorney in Eau Claire for over 20 years. As the country braces for another presidential election, immigrants and refugees have been thrust center stage in a debate often driven by
misinformation and half-truths. Let’s correct that.
1. Why don’t undocumented immigrants just get in lineand get legal?
There are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. They are undocumented for several reasons: they were brought here by their parents at a young age without being inspected at a port of entry and granted permission to enter by immigration authorities; or they crossed the border illegally themselves; or they entered the U.S. on a temporary visa and did not depart the U.S. when their period of authorized stay expired. For the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., there is no “back of the line” to get in.
An undocumented immigrant cannot simply apply for a green card, as many individuals assume. Acquiring “lawful permanent resident” status (a.k.a. “a green card,” which is not the same thing as citizenship) is generally available through only four legal routes:
• Sponsorship by an employer (with mandatory certifications to the Department of Labor that a U.S. worker does not want the job and that the employer will pay the immigrant a prevailing wage rate)
• Family ties in the U.S. (an “immediate” relative who is a lawful permanent resident or U.S. citizen)
• Refugee or asylee status
• The diversity lottery (55,000 green cards available on an annual basis through a lottery system to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.)
Employment-based green cards are limited by statute to only 140,000 per year, with 65 percent set aside for individuals with “professional” skills. Family-sponsored green cards are limited to 226,000 per year, and at the present time over four million people with approved “immediate relative” petitions are waiting for their priority date to come current (as determine by the State Department) to receive their green card. Most family categories are oversubscribed by five to 20 years. This is where the back of the line starts! If an immigrant does not have the necessary employment skills or a qualifying U.S. relative to sponsor them, they are precluded from getting in that line. Furthermore, a person who enters the country illegally and subsequently marries a qualifying U.S. citizen relative must return to their home country and wait ten years
before their approved green card will be issued to them. With few exceptions and accommodations, immigrants must be green card holders before they can become naturalized citizens. (For more details, see “Path to U.S. Citizenship” at uscis.gov/us-citizenship/citizenship-through-naturalization/
2. Immigrants don’t pay taxes, they take jobs from U.S. workers, and they are a drain on public benefits.
Statistics show that undocumented immigrants in Wisconsin paid $22.9 million in state income taxes, $8.9 million in property taxes, and $66.9 million in sales taxes in 2010 (Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy). Immigrants pay into Medicare and Social Security but likely never draw benefits from either fund. Each year between 1996 and 2011, immigrants contributed $183 billion to Medicare and $13 billion into the Social Security system. Additionally, immigrants and native-born workers tend to do different kinds of jobs that require different skills (e.g., dairy farming, agriculture, food preparation, cleaning, and maintenance). Workers with legal status earn more than workers who are undocumented, generating more tax revenue as well as consumer spending, which helps sustain U.S. jobs. Finally, welfare and immigration reform laws preclude undocumented immigrants from qualifying for public benefits. Even “lawful permanent residents” of the U.S. must wait five years to qualify for public benefit programs regardless of how long they have worked or paid taxes in the United States. Qualifying U.S. citizen relatives who sponsor family members for a green card are required by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to sign an Affidavit of Support contract agreeing to reimburse state or federal government agencies for any public benefits applied for by the immigrant family member for a period of 10 years.
3. Refugees are a threat to the United States.
A refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political gain, religion, or national origin. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is administered by multiple government offices and agencies, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, within the Department of Homeland Security. Individuals must meet stringent criteria to qualify for “refugee” status. Refugees must pass multiple background checks, medical screenings, and interviews in order to be accepted for admission into the U.S. It takes approximately 1,000 days for refugees to be screened by federal agencies and approved for travel to the United States. According to the Department of State, the entire resettlement process takes approximately 18 to 24 months to complete. Individuals may be rejected for health-related, moral/criminal grounds, and security grounds. Many agree that the current immigration system is broken. Whether a fix is possible remains to be seen. Until the current myths about immigration are debunked, any reform appears to be unlikely.
Attorney Victoria Lynn Seltun is a shareholder with Weld Riley. Vicki focuses her practice on immigration law and private and public sector employment law (management).