Last week I completed 17 years in the United States, and three weeks back was 14 years since I last entered the country. I have been extremely fortunate at the opportunities I have had here, while the byzantine and illogical immigration rules have at times made it impossible or risky to travel abroad, and also stressing me out about the uncertainty of my future legal status. Yet the immigration debate on both sides bother me, where the binary choices come down to either slashing immigration numbers or supporting all undocumented immigration. Here are my thoughts on a few immigration topics –
First, here are some basic statistics about immigration in the United States –
- There were over 617,000 green cards issued last year, including over 230,000 in the family category and over 370,000 in the employment category.
- There are over 4.3 million people waiting on line for their green cards.
- As of October 2017, the waiting line for some family-based categories goes back 20-22 years for Mexico and Philippines, while for India and China it goes back 6-13 years.
- For employment-based green cards, the waiting line for India goes back 9 to 11 years, and for China it goes back 3 to 4 years.
- There were nearly 10.4 million visas issued last year, while an additional 3.7 million visa applications were denied.
- Over 40% of those living in the country without proper documentation have overstayed their visas, and every year since 2007 more people have overstayed their visas than crossed the border illegally.
As someone still jumping through visa hoops, I wonder what will I do if I go back to a country I have visited once in 17 years, especially when my own parents and sibling are citizens here. From a rational perspective, we need young people who go to school, college, and contribute to society and the economy. We need these young workers and innovators whose contributions can create even more jobs. From a moral perspective, we shouldn’t punish those who came here as children and for whom this is the only country they know or remember. Neither the latest DREAM Act proposal nor DACA should discriminate against legal immigrants who came to this country as children, which both currently do, but who have fallen through the cracks of the system because of long waiting periods. Immigration, when done right, is important for economic growth. Immigrants are consumers, employees, and employers. Their participation in the economy causes growths of jobs and new industries. They help businesses that cannot find enough qualified native workers. Immigrants tend to move to different locations more than native-born. This helps the growth of sparsely population and rural regions. When immigrants are younger they slow the aging of the population, and their contribution to the economy and taxes lessen the burden on the social safety net.
Immigration laws must also be fair, to protect both immigrants and native workers. Legal immigration must be made easier for those truly in need, like refugees and asylum-seekers from across the world, as well as those who can contribute to a country’s growth. We must fight restriction on intake of refugees, as well as fight the discriminatory ban on Muslim-majority countries. As an immigrant, myself and others have looked upon the ideals of America as a land of fresh start, a land where old tribal identities and battles can no longer hold us back, and a land of laws and a sense of justice and fairness. Helping refugees portrays the good side of America. And if we help those truly in need, we also benefit to reap the rewards of their gratitude. The ban on Muslim-majority countries does not distinguish between individuals, and painting them with a broad brush just because they share some man-made tribal identities is inherently unfair and immoral.
Whether it is high-skilled jobs or blue-collar workers, as long as employers aren’t allowed to abuse the minimum wage laws, hiring of immigrants must be made easier for employers when they cannot find native workers. But once people are allowed to immigrate as workers, like on H1B, they must be allowed to change jobs or look for other jobs without losing their immigration status by tying them to a particular employer. This gives the employee more rights to negotiate salary and benefits, and prevents employers from driving down their own cost and employee wages by hiring immigrants over native workers. As an immigrant going through the byzantine immigration process, as well as part of a company’s management, I have experienced the frustrations of the immigration system from both sides. There have been a few times I have thought it is better to go back than deal with the amount of paperwork required for filing an application, or feeling overwhelmed by the waiting line. And I have also seen that one of the biggest disruption for a small business is employee turnover. If someone has received a high-skilled work visa and has been working at the same company for half a dozen years, getting an employment-based green card should be automatic or at least made easier. Yet the employment-based green card process is ridiculously complicated for employers trying to keep their senior or high-qualified employees.
Similarly, H1B visas or employment-based green cards shouldn’t punish employers who spend time, money, resources on their immigrant employees who promptly quit when they find something better. It is not fair to tie employees to an employer, but it is also not fair to an employer to make them go through the months-long process of doing immigration paper-work and then lose the employee in a short period of time. Immigration categories like H1B must also be fixed so that a few multi-national companies, like those from India, do not abuse the process by placing tens of thousands of applications and overwhelming the visa lottery process. Smaller businesses should not suffer because larger companies get most of the H1B visas because they afford tens of thousands of applications. And highly-skilled workers of other countries should not be left behind because the vast majority of H1B visas go to Indian multinational companies who have overwhelmed the visa lottery process.
If the employment-based immigration process is complicated and long for those from India or China, I think the family-based green card process is even worse. Limits on immigrations from individual nations has resulted for some countries’ citizens getting a green card in a few months to a couple of years, while for people from countries such as India, China, Mexico, and Philippines it can take a dozen years to a few decades. And the visa categories have ensured that if someone turns 21 while waiting, or for a few other reasons, they can get kicked off the line and start the process all over again. For those who fall under these cracks, like myself, getting a green card through the legal process can possibly take half a lifetime, even if they have been here since they were children. Yet someone coming from overseas through marriage can get a green card in a matter of months.
From my experience, illegal immigration, even among the immigrant population, is an issue that varies by age and geographical ancestry of immigrants. Liberal second-generation immigrants, or those who came at a very young age, or those from countries without a long waiting line, tend to have a different view towards undocumented immigrants than those from other places of the world who have experienced the excruciating slowness or cruelty of legal immigration laws. Those who have had to wait years or decades or gone through tremendous hassles have a more negative view towards undocumented immigrants. We cannot have people living in the shadows and in fear. Without legal rights, they are at risk from being taken advantage of by employers and other unscrupulous people. Immigration must be made easier and practical, but stronger borders are necessary to thwart human traffickers or those taking advantage of their geographical proximity to the United States. It also ensures that those trying to immigrate legally do not lose out by following the rules.
If we are going to have immigration laws, we must have enforcement of those laws. If we choose to have open borders where anyone who can afford a flight ticket or rent a pickup truck can stay here, that is okay. But having immigration laws for those who follow them, and not enforcing the laws on those who don’t is inherently unfair on the former. I support stronger border because of the fairness for legal immigrants and protection for illegal immigrants. Imagine if half of those 10+ million getting visas annually decide to stay behind after their status expires. Or the millions whose applications are rejected each year decide to cross the border illegally. Most adults who are currently here without documentation must get a pathway to citizenship. But they must get behind those who have been waiting for green cards through the legal pathway. Sometimes I keep reading that sending people to the back of the line isn’t desirable because of how long and slow the legal line is. But it would be inherently unfair if those following the rules are treated worse than those who did not.
I hope for a world of open borders and unhindered travel. But for such a world to exist, we must have economic equality between nations so that the free movement of people isn’t only in one direction. We shouldn’t build walls, but prosperous nations must do more to help people in the poorer nations. With opportunities and economic security, there would be less brain-drain from the developing world. Over-population can put a strain on resources, and too much increase in supply of workers can depress wages. We cannot ‘save’ everyone in the world with the wave of a wand. But we can help others to the best of our abilities as a people and a nation.
Not everyone who supports immigration control is a bigot or xenophobe, nor does anyone who supports law and order in immigration matter should be criticized as a racist. We have to understand immigration through human nature. At our innate level, we have a basic fear of others – it is more in some and less in others. Protecting our territory is a trait that goes back deep into evolutionary history. In India, there has been deadly violence when people cross state lines to pursue better job opportunities. Yesterday’s immigrants might oppose today’s immigrants, and today’s immigrants might oppose tomorrow’s. For us to convince others about the positive aspects of immigration and free movements of people, we have to understand their viewpoints as well as ensure that economic security of native workers is taken care of. Ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with us won’t change their mindsets. No matter the positive aspects of immigration, if native workers are struggling economically many will vote against immigration, even if it is self-defeating for the country. And in a democracy, the optics of not trying to ensure the economic security for native workers will do more harm than good to the concept of immigration. Emotional decisions, be it of the bleeding-heart variety or xenophobia, do not tend to work in the long term.