By Robert A. Ratliff Special to the Press-Register | Published: Sunday, June 10, 2012 | Source: Blog.Al.com
Whenever I meet people and they learn that I am an immigration attorney, they always ask me this question: “Why don’t they just come legally like our ancestors did?”
The “they” in that question is often undefined. Do the questioners mean the babies and young children brought here by their parents and who know no other way of life?
Do they mean the hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans who arrived here on temporary work visas and just stayed?
Or do they mean the men and women fleeing Haiti who for political reasons do not receive the same benefits as Cubans who come to this country?
Regardless of who “they” are, the question reflects two basic misunderstandings about our immigration law and the history of our country.
- First, what is the legal process today?
Our immigration law is a complex set of rules and regulations. We invite for immigration primarily two groups of people: those who are sponsored by an employer, and those with immediate family already legally present in the country.
Work-related visas are generally reserved to those with a high level of education or other skill. For unskilled workers, the wait can be years.
Family categories can be worse. The current wait for the brother or sister of a United States citizen from the Philippines is 23 years. The unmarried son or daughter of a legal permanent resident from Mexico must wait 20 years.
Plus, during the time an immigrant application is pending, our government considers the applicant to now have “immigrant intent” — and thus he or she is no longer eligible to receive a temporary visa to visit relatives in the U.S.
- The second, and bigger, misunderstanding lies with our national history and memory. Do you really know whether your ancestors arrived here legally?
Let’s ignore the entire issue of the native peoples of this land and what their immigration laws were. Let’s look simply at the laws imposed by the European forefathers of so many of us.
Our first immigration law only allowed naturalization for “free white peoples.” This portion of that law remained in effect until 1952.
Throughout the 18th century, immigration remained very small and limited to mostly Europeans and the people they forced to come here.
In the 19th century, immigration from Asian nations began to increase. This prompted numerous immigration laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1917 act banning immigration from all Asian countries except Japan and the Philippines.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Congress decided that Hispanic people living in the West and Southwest would be happier if they were reunited with their families in Mexico. Tens of thousands of Hispanics were forcibly removed from the United States — regardless of whether they were citizens and regardless of how many generations their ancestors had lived in the same area while the borders were moved around them.
In 1924, Congress passed the national origins quota system. This system provided preference in immigration to those of European nations by using quotas based on race and national origin.
A quote from the time described this law as “keeping America American.”
These racial and national origin quotas remained in full effect until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration Act of 1965. But what the 1965 act lacked in outright racism, it made up for with creative rules limiting the number of immigrants to the United States that could come from the Western Hemisphere.
In other words, it limited Hispanic immigration. The 1965 act also placed numerical caps on the number of people who could immigrate to the United States from any one country.
In that way, Congress could be sure that not too many of any one type would be coming to the United States.
So assuming your European ancestor did in fact arrive here legally, without violating the law of the indigenous people already here, then they surely have either been a part of, or have benefited from, 200 years of unconstitutional, illegal and race-based immigration laws.
So please, before we ask “Why don’t they just come legally like our ancestors did?”, let’s recognize the truth of our history and the privileges we have taken for ourselves.
Then maybe we can go a little easy on the rhetoric and recognize the race-based history of United States immigration.
Robert A. Ratliff is an attorney in Mobile. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.