Just last week, Jesus Lara, an undocumented dad who worked packaging Pepperidge Farm cookies in Willard, Ohio, was torn from his wife and four U.S. citizen children and deported to Mexico, despite having no criminal record and spending 16 years as a taxpayer in America. Writing and tweeting about the Lara family’s story resulted in the usual flood of pro- and anti-immigrant responses, but one glaring kind of response from both the left and the right emerged in reply to the heartbreaking photographs of Lara saying goodbye to his children at a Cleveland airport:
“He was here 16 yrs and you expect us to believe he couldn't get naturalized?”
“Should [have] tried to get legal all those years he lived in America.”
“If he loved his kids so much he would have become a citizen.”
“I got this is bad, but he did have 16 YEARS to do the right thing.”
That’s the problem, and an example of how our nation’s immigration system is not only cruel, but fundamentally broken. Undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen children and years in America would be more than happy to get in back of the line in order to sort out their legal status and live without fear—but no line exists for them to get into.
“One misconception about undocumented immigrants is that obtaining legal papers is as simple as, say, changing your address at the post office,” notes America’s Voice. If only it were that easy, it could have spared families, like the Laras, from unspeakable pain. Undocumented immigrants aren’t putting off gaining legal status because they just don’t feel like it, are gaming the system, or are being lazy. Undocumented immigrants haven’t gained legal status because we don’t give them the option in the first place.
As Center for Community Change’s Thomas Kennedy writes, the U.S. offers few and extremely narrow routes for people outside the U.S. seeking to gain residency here: “employment, family reunification or humanitarian protection. All three of these categories are highly regulated with limits on the number of people who can obtain the status.” And none of these categories are feasible for undocumented immigrants already here.
The fact is that for undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years and have minors who cannot sponsor them for years to come—“the child must first be 21 years of age or older, and the undocumented parent would still have to get into the long family-based immigration lines,” notes America’s Voice—there are no options. Even marriage to a U.S. citizen doesn’t guarantee anything:
A person could marry a US citizen, but this does not necessarily lead to legal status either. As we explained here, an undocumented person who seeks legalization by marriage must leave the US first and return to their country of origin. But once they identify themselves as undocumented and leave, they trigger a ban — that can last up to 10 years — during which they cannot reenter the country. There are ways around this ban, but only for a select group of people.
Imaging having to leave your family and everything you’ve built in this country for a decade or more, and facing the very real possibility of maybe not being able to return at all. Kennedy:
The immigration system in the United States does not offer “a line” for aspiring undocumented immigrants so they can begin the process of becoming U.S. citizens. People like my parents and millions of other immigrants spend years, sometimes decades in the shadows waiting for common sense immigration reform that will allow them to lead normal lives without the fear of deportation. Instead of telling immigrants to “get in line,” we should focus on creating that line and providing a fair process for immigrants to come into this country.
The closest we’ve gotten to finally passing comprehensive immigration reform was 2013, when the Senate actually did some work and passed a bipartisan compromise that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to pay a fine, any back taxes they owed (they already pay $12 billion annually), and get in the back of the line after passing a background check in exchange for provisional legal status and a 13-year path to citizenship. But that was blocked by former Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans.
“If we want undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows, go through background checks, and seek legal employment, we should focus on actually creating ‘the line,’” writes immigrant rights activist Julissa Arce. “The question shouldn't be, why don't [undocumented immigrants] get in the line, the question we should be asking ourselves is, when are we going to create the line?” And that’s what we should be focusing on: allowing undocumented families to finally become a part of this country on paper, rather than building useless and expensive walls that will do nothing to make America safer or solve our broken immigration system.