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Undocumented Immigrants: Why Don’t They Just Get In Line?

The ninth circuit court of appeal decision to deny the federal government’s emergency request to lift the temporary travel ban restraining order was a huge victory for many Americans this past week.

The court rejected the government’s attempt to shield Trump’s executive order by explaining that it “runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.” The decision demonstrates and reaffirms the importance of the separation of powers and the need for proper checks and balances to the executive branch of government. Even with this victory, most Americans are still wary of Trump’s actions and rhetoric surrounding immigration as a whole.

Instead of focusing on the ninth circuit court’s decision and the implications it will have, as it is likely to face a Supreme Court ruling, I rather focus on immigration as a whole, and in particular address the common argument against illegal immigration: “Why don’t they just get in line and come here legally?” Not only is this argument fundamentally problematic, but it also fails to account for the reality many of these immigrants face when seeking refuge in our country. By the same token, these assertions miss the point: there is no line for undocumented immigrants, and most of the regular channels do not include them.


The United States immigration system is limited regarding how illegal immigrants can enter the country. There are normally three routes immigrants can take, employment, family reunification, or humanitarian protection. While the system can be generous, each of these potential routes is extremely regulated and subject to statistical limitations and eligibility requirements. Most of the immigrants crossing over do not have the essential family and employment relationships, nor the access to humanitarian protections such as refugee or asylum status.

While the system can be generous, each of these potential routes is extremely regulated and subject to statistical limitations and eligibility requirements.

Each year the United States sets a designated number limit on how many refugees will be admitted for humanitarian reasons. According to The American Immigration Council, “To be admitted as refugees, individuals must be screened for multiple international and U.S agencies” and must be able to adequately prove that there is a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, or national origin.” As for asylum seekers, those are usually people who are already in the United States who are worried about going back to their home countries. However, an immigrant does not qualify as a refugee nor an individual seeking asylum because of the poverty or difficult economic conditions of their native country.


For example, before Obama left office he ended the 20-year-old “wet foot, dry foot” policy which allowed Cuban migrants who reach U.S soil to stay and become legal citizens after one year of residence, effectively ending one potential avenue for undocumented immigrants to enter the United States, though it could be argued this was beneficial for both the U.S and Cuba. In other words, for the vast majority of immigrants who seek to enter the country legally, there is no “line” for them to go to.

Even when coming to the United States for employment, most foreign workers must have a job already lined up with an eligible employer who will sponsor them. Employers can request permission to bring over highly specialized foreign workers, but only if they meet the job skills and education requirements. In these cases, there are a limited number of temporary visas for highly skilled or internationally recognized workers.

In addition to the limitations mentioned above placed on immigrants attempting to enter to our country, family-based immigration is extremely limited due to numerical restrictions. Family members who qualify can seek permission to bring in certain eligible foreign-born members into the United States. There are visas available for all the family categories. However, they are limited regarding how many can be given out. In most cases, the qualified family members must show they can commit to supporting the family member(s) coming to the United States. Moreover, even for the people who have the opportunity to get over through family relationships, there are backlogs and waits that discourage immigrants.

 In addition to some of the drawbacks to our system, family-based immigration is extremely limited due to numerical restrictions.

As of May 2016, most countries require that eligible children of U.S citizens wait five years and that siblings wait more than a decade. Countries that have a high level of immigration to the United States generally have longer wait times. For example, married children of U.S. citizens from Mexico must wait for more than two decades for a visa to become while Filipino siblings wait about 25 years for entry on average.

Lastly, there is the lottery system that is in place for individual countries. If a person cannot find a path into the U.S. through the family, employment, or humanitarian systems, he or she can find one more legal way, the Diversity Visa program. This program makes 55,000 green cards available to persons from countries who have low immigration rates into the United States. Immigrants coming from countries like Mexico, China, Philippines, and India are not eligible for these visas. One must also qualify for these visas by having a high school education (or equivalent) and two years of work experience. Since there are millions of people who apply for these visas each year, the likelihood of obtaining a visa via lottery is small, to say the least.

Mexicans Meet Separated Family Members Through U.S.-Mexico Border Fence In Tijuana

Ultimately, the reality that most individuals face when seeking to enter the U.S. is that there is no physical “line” to wait on, and most immigrants do not qualify for the legal routes that are available under the current system. Moreover, even if they do qualify, the wait can be excruciatingly long if one is applying from a country that is currently oversubscribed.

As Americans, we may have concerns about national security when talking about immigration, looking to ensure that none of the “bad” ones make their way here. But the truth is that a majority of those entering the U.S. are families seeking a better situation for themselves and are no more dangerous than our fellow American-born citizens. It is equally important to note that there have been a bevy of studies using a variety of methods to determine if immigrants are more violent than those born here in the U.S., and the conclusion might surprise many: they are less likely to be violent than native-born Americans.

In other words, for the vast majority of immigrants who seek to enter the country legally, there is no “line” for them to wait on.

Immigrants are the backbone of our economy in the food and service industry and do jobs that most Americans do not want to do. Instead of recognizing the hard work these immigrants do regarding putting food in grocery stores, restaurants and tables across the country, our system punishes them. They deserve as much of a chance to enter our country and become citizens like every other generation of immigrants that came before them. We should look to reform our current (complex) system and make it easier for those attempting to enter our great country, not turn a blind eye to them and shut our borders. All of that being said, Americans tend to forget that these people seeking refuge and risking their lives to enter the U.S. are people too. We are a nation of immigrants; it is at the very foundation of what makes us great already, and at such a crucial time in our history we cannot turn our backs on them now.




Why Don’t They Just Get In Line? | American Immigration .., (accessed February 10, 2017)

Gomez, Alan. “Obama ends ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy for Cubans.” USA Today. January 12, 2017. Accessed February 4, 2017.

“The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States.” American Immigration Council. November 29, 2016. Accessed February 7, 2017.



Samuel Tuero View All

Rutgers Student studying Political Science & Government with a minor in Journalism who has an interest in the intersection of journalism and political movements.

Twitter: Sam_Tuero

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