Immigration is important, and it must be fair.

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 –

LEGAL IMMIGRATION

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.

ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION

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.

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Yemen – forgotten by our tribal mentality

According to the UN, Yemen is currently the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Countless have died, become homeless, on the verge of starving to death, and besieged by diseases. Yet it has barely created a ripple in American social media. I am starting to realize social media outrage has the potential to produce real-life changes. The conflict in Yemen has been covered by the major American news organizations for years. So why hasn’t the war gone viral or seeped into our collective consciousness in the United States? I think it is because the war in Yemen doesn’t fall under any ready-made narrative. There are no preconceived heroes or villains for liberals or conservatives to pick on. A civil war in a Muslim nation where numerous Muslim nations are fighting a proxy battle doesn’t animate conservatives. Since Israel or some Western nation aren’t involved, liberals aren’t motivated to condemn the atrocities in Yemen either. Add the fact that the Obama administration’s continuous support and arming of Saudi Arabia made it complicit in the war crimes in Yemen, liberal outrage has been mostly muted.

I think in our polarized times what goes viral depends on what tribal narrative it can fall in to. I noticed it earlier this decade and tested the hypothesis in my head during the Sochi Olympics. Just before Sochi started, protesting against the anti-LGBT laws in Russia became a big thing on social media. I was surprised and also happy. But I wanted to know if this attitude will extend to all other countries with anti-LGBT laws or will the topic fade away after Sochi ends. From prior experiences, I guessed it would be the later because it is easy to hate on Russia. But criticizing “minority” countries, where most of these anti-LGBT laws exist, has become very hard for progressives in the West.

It is harder to find ready-made villains in the Yemen conflict, unlike the Syrian refugee crisis. That war had been raging since 2011 and well covered in mainstream media, but it only jumped to social media few years later when the bad guys were white Europeans who were uncaring for asylum-seeking peoples of color. Around that time, I started feeling frustrated about the lazy criticism of mainstream media. The idea that the media did not cover the Syrian war was not true, just like it is not true that the media isn’t covering the Yemeni crisis. Not all news organizations have resources to be everywhere. With consumers moving towards free media, which is also prone to click-bait journalism by appealing to our emotions and personal ideologies, the serious media with high journalistic standards is suffering from declining readership and revenue. Layoffs make it harder to cover every inch of the planet. Safety of journalists also come into consideration in covering every conflict. Therefore, is it not the fault of the citizenry for sometimes being lazy in not getting their news from diverse sources nor paying for good journalism. When the Syrian conflict reached European shores because of refugees, more media outlets could cover it. And only then did the outrage machine about the Syrian crisis go into overdrive. There was no outrage or sympathy at the plight of Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, each of whom host over a million Syrian refugees. 30% of Lebanon’s population are Syrian refugees. These information could be found in mainstream media, if not in the social media echo chamber or highly partisan websites.

Similarly, there is a thinking among many that the American media is the world media. If something is not covered in the American media, it is assumed it is not covered anywhere else. Or that the American media has a responsibility to cover every story from every corner of the planet. And if it doesn’t it is proof that American/world media doesn’t care for these other places. For example, over the past week coverage of Hurricane Harvey has dominated American news media. Couple of days back The New York Times reported about the monsoon floods killing over 1000 people across South Asia. I have seen two ways in which a story like this is shared across social media. Some share it for informational purposes. And some share it with a self-righteousness shaming of others. The later goes along these lines – “while the world media/mainstream media is focused on Texas, 1000 people have died in South Asia and little or no attention is being paid to it.” This led me thinking about two things – these monsoon floods have been going on for a while. The people who post with the second attitude did not read about the issue till The New York Times and then the NPR reported on it this week. So they weren’t too far ahead of those whom they were shaming. Secondly, when I look at Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, German, French, or Spain’s English language newspapers’ websites, there are none to maybe one small article on their websites about Hurricane Harvey. Are THEY ignoring the disaster happening in America, or is the more likely explanation that media companies have limited resources, and they invest those resources in places where their readership is more interested in? Indian newspapers report on things happening in and around India. American newspapers report on topics happening in and near America or its allies.

We pick on outrageous comments or actions of individuals on the “other” side and paint them as a monolith. Yet when someone does the same on “our” side, we say these individuals don’t represent all of us. Instead of waiting for full facts or the understanding of nuance, we jump to instant outrage. If liberals support a cause, conservatives have to be against it, even if it goes against conservative ideals. Even if it turns over the conservative movement towards racists and nationalists who would have never been included in the original conservative movement. If conservatives are against something, liberals become for it, even if it means abandoning the ideals of liberalism. Embrace of racists and anti-Muslim bigots on the conservative side has made Muslims an oppressed minority in the eyes of Western liberals. But that has led to the muting of any criticism of LGBT or women’s rights in Islamic nations. There is no outrage at the state persecution or mob lynching of liberals, secularists, or atheists in many of these nations and other “minority” nations. But many of these “minorities” in the US are conservative majorities elsewhere. Many of these “minorities” had vast empires, were conquerers and subjugators, and also engaged in slave trade for centuries. Many of them are apologists about issues within themselves, but quick to point fingers elsewhere. I know this because as a liberal Indian, one of the biggest criticism I get is talking about problems in Indian society. I am met with the familiar – “problems happen everywhere, so are you picking on problems on our side.” One of the biggest causes of bigotry and prejudice is seeing people as “us” vs “them”. Us is the good side. Them is the bad side. And if liberalism also becomes “us” vs “them” where we see people as monoliths of good or bad, victim or oppressor, we lose the individual stories and their nuance. We only speak out when someone of the “victim” tribes of America is affected. And that makes us go silent when atrocities do not fall under such black-and-white American definitions of victim vs oppressor. Taking this attitude to the extreme isn’t only intellectual laziness, it might even be a savior complex that requires certain groups to be the victim groups so we feel good about ourselves when we jump into the outrage bandwagon. In this tribal mentality, who speaks for the liberals when they are killed in the “minority/oppressed group” countries of the world? Who speaks for the women, LGBT, or the atheists in these places? Is it a wonder then that Yemen or numerous other conflicts never reach our consciousness? Liberals must stand for the ideals of liberalism everywhere. Social liberalism must stand for the weak and the oppressed no matter who they are or where they are. It must call out those who oppress individuals or groups, no matter who they are or where they are. If we turn to tribal identities in our fight for social justice, we risk becoming silently complicit in a lot of atrocities and injustice. We risk seeing Rwanda or Sudan or Yemen repeat again and again. We risk abandoning liberals where being a social liberal might mean a death sentence.