Immigration 101

The following summary of immigration laws and issues was copied and summarized from materials published by the Immigration Policy Center.
For the whole document, sources, and credits,


While the USA changes and evolves, our immigration system remains frozen in time, locked into legal limits set in 1990 and later further restricted by laws passed in 1996.  Inflamed rethoric often obscures the genuine problems and impairs consensus on effective solutions.

It is misleading to characterize our immigration crisis as solely a question of what to do about the

11 to 12 million unauthorized immigrants:  people living in limbo


·        Insufficient # of visas to bring in either high-skilled or less-skilled workers at the levels needed by the economy

·        Arbitrary  and outdated visa caps have created backlogs of family members who wait up to 20 years:  divide families and hurt business

·        Wage and workplace violations that exploit immigrants, undercut honest businesses and harm all workers

·        Inadequate government infrastructure is delaying the integration of people who want to legalize.

·        4 million US-citizen children living in mixed status families with at least one parent who is an unauthorized immigrant.




There is NO line for unauthorized immigrants.

There are few legal ways for most immigrants to come to the US, and all are restricted to certain categories.



Also, the lack of a comprehensive federal solution has created a range of lopsided, enforcement-only initiatives that have cost the country billions of dollars, while doing little to impede the flow of immigration:  right now the country has the largest unauthorized population in its history. 

Without a corresponding effort to address the pull of jobs and family, enforcement-only approach has deepened the immigration crisis:

·        Despite spending billion of dollars, the problem is not going away

·        The U.S border has become more dangerous than ever.

·        Since the 1990s, the federal government has failed to allocate the resources needed to effectively process the growing # of naturalization applications. This processing system has been funded since 1988 primarily through fees paid by applicants themselves, not through direct congressional appropriations. 




Current immigration system:

·        Family-based:   U.S. citizens can petition for “green cards”  for spouses, parents, children, and siblings.  Green-card holders can petition for spouses and unmarried children only.  The petitioner has to demonstrate an income level above4 the federal poverty line, and legally commit to support.

·        Employment-based:  must have a job offer that includes a sponsorship by the employer—very expensive and time consuming, involves only high-skilled and educated professionals, scientists, professors, multinational executives.  INSUFFICIENT LEGAL CHANNELS FOR LOW-SKILLED WORKERS.

·        Humanitarian-based:  protection to a yearly-capped # of persons fleeing persecution; must provide proof based on race, religion, membership in social group, political opinion, or national origin.

·        Other:  include the diversity lottery; all highly restrictive and limited to extremely small groups of qualified people.

·        Non-immigrant, temporary:  covers people like tourists, high-skilled workers, musicians on tour, students, farmworkers, and visiting scientists.  While many of these workers truly are temporary, others aspire to remain in the U.S. but cannot do so because of the legal limitations above.





1.      Family based backlogs:

·       Demand exceeds supply:  a green-card immigrant must currently wait al least five years to receive a green card for a minor child.

·       Per-country limits:  in 1976, Congress created equal per-country cap meaning that Mexico has the same annual quota as Belgium. This results in disproportionately long waits for families from high-immigration countries like Mexico, or the Philippines.

·       Processing delays and inconsistent policies worsen problems and create more illegal entry.  Lack of resources and overly rigid bureaucratic procedures do not allow quick background checks, coordination of visa procedures between DHS and Dept of State, or make common-sense provisions for family reunification.


2.     Employment-based:   Total of 140,000 green cards available a year for qualified immigrants.  Set years ago by Congress, this current system does not have the flexibility needed to respond to the country’s evolving economic needs.   The number of workers necessary to fill gaps in our labor supply changes depending on a wide range of economic factor.

Also, there are too few visas for less-skilled workers. The types of jobs most associated with unauthorized immigrants are the least likely to qualify for work visas.  The yearly cap for these workers (hotel, landscapers, construction) is limited to 5,000 for the entire U.S.  This insufficient # is at the heart of the unauthorized immigration problem.  Employers in restaurants, hotels, and other service-sector jobs who want to petition for immigrant workers because the local labor pool does not meet their demand face visa backlogs of about 10 years.  Until there are more legal avenues for employers to hire immigrant workers to meet economic demands, unauthorized immigration will continue to fill the gap, and we will not be able to regain control over immigration.


3.     Millions of anauthorized workers and other immigrants, many of whom have U.S.-citizen families, reside in the US with no means to become legal residents.  The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) created bars on admission to the US for individuals who have been unlawfully present in the country for any period of time.  Individuals who have been unlawfully present for more than 180 days, but less than one year, and who voluntarily depart, may not reenter the country for three years.  People unlawfully present for an aggregate period of one year or more are subject to ten-year bar.  This means that unauthorized immigrants in the US who are eligible for visas are encouraged to remain here illegally rather than risk being separated from family members for three years, ten years, or even permanently.


4.     Unscrupulous employers who hire unauthorized workers in order to maximize profits are lowering wages and working conditions for ALL workers.   Lack of legal status makes these workers extremely vulnerable to abuse:  often endure low wages and poor, even dangerous working conditions; are often victims of wage theft by employers who pay less than minimum wage or do not pay them at all.   It also jeopardizes the competitiveness of those employers who try to follow the law.  When vulnerable unauthorized workers are willing to accept substandard wages and working conditions, labor rights in all industries are undermined.  

          Researches find that on-the job death rates for Latino workers are disproportionately high respect to any other ethnic or racial group.   Latino workers tend to work in dangerous industries such as construction and agriculture, they may not be given the same safety equipment as other workers, and their lack of English skills may mean that they cannot read safety warnings.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 990 Latino workplace deaths in 2006.  Although the gap with other races has narrowed recently, Mexican-born workers still accounted for 42% of all foreign-born-worker deaths in 2008.


5.     Inadequate infrastructure causes delays in the integration of immigrants who want to become US citizens.  Integration benefits everyone because it enables immigrants to realize their full potential, contribute more to the US economy, and develop deeper community ties.  There is no comprehensive integration strategy in the US.   Funding has repeatedly been cut for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, despite significant increase in demand (in most cities, there are wait lists of one to three years for adult ESL classes).

In order to become a citizen, an immigrant must first reside in the US continuously for five years as a Legal Permanent Resident (three years for spouses of US citizens), or serve for at least one year in the Armed Forces.  The applicant must consent to a criminal background check by the FBI, be proficient in English and have a basic understanding of US government and history.  Many immigrants are eager to become citizens, but the process is costly (about $1000) and time-consuming, the bureaucratic obstacles are often offensive and demeaning, the delays are unfair; applicants have to travel long distances and take time off from work several times. 

The Office of Immigration Statistics reports a rise in naturalizations:  from an average of 120,000 during the 1950s, to an average of 680,000 in 2000-2008.   In 2008, more than 1,000,000 immigrants became naturalized citizens. The processing of applications is a perpetually underfunded operation subject to chronic backlogs and delays.  Yet, the fees continue to increase, which undoubtedly prevents or delays many immigrants’ opportunity to even apply.



For more than two decades, the US Gov has tried to stamp out unauthorized immigration through enforcement efforts at the border and in the interior of the country, without success and without fundamentally reforming the broken immigration system that spurs unauthorized immigration in the first place.


6.  The US has spent billions of dollars on ineffective border enforcement.  At the same time, the # of undocumented immigrants has roughly tripled from 3.5 million in 1990 to 11.9 million in 2008.  The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that between 25 and 40% of all unauthorized immigrants do not sneak across the border, but come to the US on valid visas and then stay after their visas expire, meaning that border enforcement is irrelevant to a large portion of the unauthorized population.  Yet, since 1992, the annual budget of the US Border Patrol has increased by 714% (from $360 million in 1992 to $2.7 billion in 2009.  The # of Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border has also proportionately increased, as have technological resources (fences, cameras, sensors and aircraft).

Yet, despite all his additional spending, the # of immigrants entering the US without authorization has not decreased.


7.      Border security without adequate legal channels for immigration has created a more dangerous border and reduced “circularity” of migration.   Crossing the border has become more dangerous and expensive because of increased enforcement.  Operation Blockade (1993) and Operation Gatekeeper (1994) have successfully closed off traditional point of entry and diverted unauthorized migrants into more dangerous areas.  The probability of death or injury as a result of heat exhaustion, exposure, suffocation, or drowning has increased.  The Gov Accountability Office reported that border deaths had more than doubled between 1995 and 2005.  The current figure is an average of one death per day. 

Migrants have to rely on professional smugglers, who charge over than $2,000 to take people across the border.  Often, migrants remain indebted to the smugglers for years after they arrive in the US, sometimes working as indentured servants until their debts are paid.  Smugglers have also turned to kidnapping the loved ones of immigrants in order to extort additional money from their cargo.  There have also been increased reports of violence associated with rivalries between smuggling networks, affecting both migrants and border communities.

In the past, a large portion of unauthorized immigration tended to be “circular”—people came in to work and make money for short periods of time, then went back home, with this cycle being repeated several times.  Nowadays, however, because of increased border enforcements, migrants find themselves stuck in the US, with no possibility to go back to their countries.   Researchers found that the average stay in the 1980s was three years, nine years by 1990.


8.     Electronic employment-verification programs (E-verify) are erroneously hailed as the next “magic bullet” to end unauthorized immigration.  E-verify is a federal web-based program through which US businesses can attempt to verify the work authorization of new hires. It is voluntary, except where state laws require business to register to use it, as well as a few other exceptions in which the federal government has made it mandatory.  There have been many attempts to make E-verify mandatory for all, despite the fact that it remains an extremely controversial program because of the high probability for database errors, misuse of the system by employers, and the burden it imposed on the SSA (Social Security Administration).   Because E-verify cannot identify counterfeit, stolen or borrowed identity documents, some unauthorized workers are erroneously confirmed as authorized; and it is, of course, totally irrelevant in the under economy, where work is performed off the books.

A mandatory employment-verification system could only work when part of a comprehensive immigration reform which requires unauthorized immigrants to legalize their status and creates legal pathways for4 future workers to come to the US.


9.     Interior immigration enforcement measures are resulting in an enforcement culture that criminalizes immigration violations and results in mistakes and civil rights violations.  Immigration enforcement has consistently focused on identifying individuals for deportation.  ICE operates the largest detention and supervised-release program in the country.  In 2008, a total of 378,582 immigrants from 221 countries were in ICE custody at more than 300 facilities throughout the US.  This represents a six-fold increase since 1994.  Between 2005 and 2009, ICE budget for detention nearly doubled from $860 million to $1.72 billion.  At the same time, the number of crimes for which immigrants may be deported, and the categories of crimes for which immigrants may be subject to mandatory detention, have expanded.

The harmful effects of these policies go far beyond the unauthorized population.  It is important to recognize that unauthorized immigrants live in mixed-status families and communities.  Policies meant to target unauthorized immigrants also impact their family members, employers, and neighbors.  A large number of people affected are US-citizen children (4 million).


10.                        The enforcement only model has pushed immigrants further underground, undermining community safety and national security.  Unauthorized people are often reluctant to report crimes they have been victims of or have witnessed for fear of deportation.  As a result, everyone in the community is less safe.  Law enforcement official themselves have stated time and time again that trust with immigrant communities is crucial to preventing and investigating crimes, and hence essential to maintaining safe communities.

In some communities, it is well known that local police are working with ICE to enforce federal immigration laws.  This not only frightens the immigrant community and make them less willing to cooperate, it also takes resources away from crime fighting.  Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona is one of the most infamous examples.

Americans cannot be secure under a system that allows smugglers and traffickers, rather than the US Government, to decide who enters the country.  Immigration reforms that bring immigrants out of the shadow, correctly identify them, and encourages people to enter the US through legal channels would allow law-enforcement and border-enforcement agents to focus on people who pose a threat to national security or public safety.


Under the existing system, people are dying at the border, immigrants are living and working in abject conditions, families trying to reunite legally are separated for many years, employers are unable to hire the workers they need, US workers suffer from the unlevel playing field shared with exploited immigrant workers.  All of this at a cost of billions of dollars.

The US must create a fair, humane, and practical immigration system for the 21st century that is responsive to the needs of our economy and encourages legal behavior.