In our broken system, legal immigration favors the privileged

LOS ANGELES – The most common argument against undocumented immigrants is that those who cross the border illegally are lazy criminals who are simply unwilling to go through the straightforward and affordable legal steps. We’re told this not only by right-wing or conservative media outlets like Fox News and CNN but often by well-off members of the Latino community who after years of legal residency status have successfully applied for citizenship, studied and passed the citizenship exam and paid all legal fees, perhaps forgetting but most likely unwilling to examine the issues that have pushed, and are still pushing, people to immigrate.

But the truth is that the obtaining citizenship in this country if you are poor is difficult and costly and that is why many decide to enter the country illegally or simply overstay their visas, which is one of the most common ways immigrants become illegal. (Roughly half of all immigrants become illegal by overstaying their visits – Pew Hispanic Center, 2006).

Furthermore, the U.S. immigration system is set up purposefully to favor potentially higher earning immigrants, arguably the ones less in need of immigrating into the U.S. in the first place for better job opportunities and overall betterment of family life. This is evident in the visa policies that give priority and special treatment to immigrants who have college degrees, are managers, executives or have other “special abilities” (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, Most if not all such people wouldn’t need to go far to make a decent living in their home country.

To become a U.S. citizen an immigrant is first required to have lived here for a minimum of five years, under the permanent resident (legal alien) status.If you have no relatives living legally in the U.S. you need to apply for an immigrant visa, which is given to those who are coming to the U.S. to work (and having a job beforehand can be difficult if you haven’t set foot into the country yet). Typically, an employer or legal family member can fill out an immigrant visa application.

And in order to become a permanent resident you must have an already-established legal resident relative living in the country making a minimum of 125 percent of the “mandate poverty line” for his or her household, counting the immigrant wishing to become a permanent resident, which, using the Department of Health and Human Services 2008-09 Poverty Threshold Report, is $25,790 for a five-person family, including the immigrant.

Expecting a single-earner family to make this kind of income if he or she wants to sponsor a relative to become a legal resident is unjust and arguably contradictory while federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour (though certain states pay as low as approximately $4 to $5 an hour through state labor regulations), with only the potential earning of $13,920 a year – if the employee is working 40 hours a week.

If you are able to get through that and have successfully submitted a visa application, now you wait for approval and a visa number.

If your visa gets approved, then you can apply for permanent resident status.

Lengthy but not too bad, right? Well, there’s more.

If you happen to come from a country that has a high rate of immigrants to the U.S. (say, Mexico or El Salvador), your chances are low. Because there is a set number of visas given out each year, the wait can take years – some cases as long as 10 years.

It is an expensive, long and complicated process, which most people cannot do on their own, so they are forced to hire attorneys to help, increasing the cost.

Bottom line: you need money to become a legal permanent resident, and then more money to become an actual citizen.

And if you do become a legal resident you are in a kind of status purgatory with very dangerous vulnerabilities that most U.S. citizens do not worry about, such as the possibility of deportation if you commit certain crimes, left to the discretion of a given county’s presiding judge and political makeup. (Permanent residents charged with nonviolent crimes such as drunk driving have been deported in certain counties).

Most people who are relatively well off in countries such as Mexico or El Salvador (homeowners, college-degree holders, making stable income) don’t have the same need to immigrate into the U.S as the working poor of those countries do. But if they do find the need to emigrate to the U.S., although they are greeted with welcoming arms and visa applications at the U.S. consulate, these higher-earning people still have to wait for their approval. That contradicts one of the very characteristics of the immigrant struggle: lack of time to wait because of a lack of available resources such as jobs and money, and other hardships directly or indirectly imposed on these people by a global economy, political turmoil or a combination of both.

The working poor, the majority of whom aren’t fully educated about the necessary legal steps to obtain permanent residence status, also cannot afford to wait. The luxury of waiting years, even if it’s only two, is not an option for a man or family that is well below the poverty line of Mexico or El Salvador, which is at a radically lower level than that of the U.S – approximately $4 to $5 a day in Mexico and approximately $1 to $3 in El Salvador (

Both my parents came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico for overall better opportunities. My father worked at the family restaurant in the small town of Jerez in the state of Zacatecas and struggled to find better job opportunities, dropped out of high school and entered the U.S. illegally. My mother graduated high school, applied to a university with dreams of becoming a teacher but for lack of room didn’t get accepted. She decided to visit her sister in the U.S., where she married my father, overstayed her allotted time as a tourist, becoming an illegal alien, and got a job, where she has worked ever since.

“We had to pay thousands of dollars, and get lawyers. It was expensive,” says my father, Jose Luis Rivas.

My mother became a citizen approximately 10 years ago. My father, however, is still a permanent resident due to personal and ideological issues.

The U.S. immigration policy is unfair to those most in need of immediate permanent residency, the working poor. Discrimination, charging fees, unrealistic years of waiting, complicated forms and language all act against those most urgently needing legal residency, exactly opposite to the treatment of better-off, better educated and higher-earning individuals who do not need to immigrate nearly as urgently.

Updated: This article was updated on 7/19/10 to correct the income requirement for an immigrant legal resident to sponsor a relative.

Photo: A rally for immigration reform in Indianapolis, Ind., in May. (SEIU Local 1 cc 2.0) 



Luis Rivas
Luis Rivas

Luis Rivas is a native of Los Angeles who lives in Echo Park and works in the San Fernando Valley.  He currently edits the non-fiction online literary journal