Immigration laws are not written in stone

Without wading into the social and economic arguments regarding immigration, I want to address a theme in several recent letters. The writers’ main complaint is that undocumented immigrants are breaking the law. To understand why people choose to go around the law, we should examine the laws themselves and question their wisdom and fairness.

U.S. immigration policy has changed dramatically over time. For most of the country’s history, if you were white, free and could afford to get here, you could stay and become a citizen. The laws that developed over time strategically excluded nationalities deemed “undesirable” based on changing political, economic, and cultural climates (e.g., 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, 1924 National Quota Act, etc.). Historically, the U.S. had a revolving door relationship with Mexico, wherein both countries benefited from migration (e.g., the Bracero Program). Restrictions enacted starting in 1965, however, have made it very difficult for Mexicans to migrate legally.

Today the road to becoming a U.S. citizen is long, winding and expensive. The process – which involves securing a visa, then becoming a lawful permanent resident, then, after a period of continual residence, applying for citizenship – takes decades. Even the swiftest pathways take multiple years due to administrative backlogs. Every step requires money (lots of it) and legal shrewdness. For most Mexican immigrants, there is no realistic way to set foot on the legal pathway in the first place. Step one – securing a visa – requires family or employer sponsorship, refugee status, extraordinary skill, or luck in the diversity lottery (from which Mexico is excluded). It is not impossible to successfully make it through the system, but if you lack resources and the luxury of time, it might as well be.

The immigration system is desperately in need of comprehensive reform. Laws are written by human beings and are just as fallible. Policies are ever changing. What remains constant is the human drive to improve one’s lot in life. The motivations for migrating through extralegal means are multifaceted. Rather than focusing on the legal issues, consider compassion and awareness as guiding principles. Immigrants are going to come for the same reasons immigrants have always come – but under much harsher policies now. Are laws that deny so many people legal pathways good laws? It is our duty to consider the wisdom of our laws and to change them if we find them unreasonable or unjust.