Many people in Arizona and around the country have strong opinions on the topic of “illegal immigrants”. Yet, when pushed, few people have much information on immigration law, what it takes to get a visa, or even what is the root cause, the reason, that millions of people would choose to leave their home and family, risk their lives in the desert, all to live in difficult conditions and work for what is often very low wages.
To understand what the Kino Border Initiative does and why we do it, one needs to understand the debate going on today in the United States regarding immigration, particularly undocumented immigration. Therefore we will dedicate the next few blog posts to lay out in simple terms what the issues are, sort of an “Immigration 101” on-line course. And it is possible to make this an “interactive” course. You can participate by sending in your questions and/or comments to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
There are an estimated 11 million people living in the United States without proper immigration status. About half of these are people are from Mexico, another 20% or so from other Latin American countries and the remainder from literally all over the world. (Did you know that there are an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish men and women in the United States?) About half are people who originally entered the country legally, with some kind of visa, maybe a tourist or a student visa. But when their visa expired and they were required by law to return to their home country, they simply stayed in the USA. The other half of these 11 million are those who entered the country illegally, who literally snuck in. United States law requires that all human beings, including US citizens, who desire to enter the USA, enter only through official ports of entry. If you are returning from a European vacation, it may be JFK airport. If you are coming back from Canada or Mexico, it will be a land crossing or a bridge crossing the Rio Grande or the Detroit River. At the port of entry, one shows the Customs and Border Protection officer your documents that allow you to enter the USA.
US citizens of course don’t need a visa to enter/reenter the USA. But if you are not a US citizen you need a visa to enter. How does a person obtain the visa, the permission, to enter the United States legally?
In immigration law, the presumption is that every visitor to the USA is what is called an “intending immigrant”. In other words, the US government assumes that all visitors are coming to stay. So to obtain a visa, one has to prove that they are planning only a temporary stay and that they will be going home to their country. The bottom line in proving this is to show you have money and/or property in your home country. This will then hopefully remove any suspicion that you are coming to the USA to live and to work.
So one point that I want to make immediately is that for an economically poor person, particularly from Mexico or Central America, obtaining a visa, legal permission to enter the USA, is next to impossible. This is an important fact, because one of the questions I get asked often is, “Why don’t they (immigrants) come legally?” This is a good, fair and appropriate question. And the broad answer is that poor people may come illegally to the US because it is impossible to come legally. Without money in the bank or property or a good job, the US government sees you as a risk to stay here and therefore they are reluctant to give you a visa.
So, unable to obtain a legal visa, a person from Mexico, desperate to get to the USA where they hope to find a job, makes the decision to come without a visa and to cross illegally into the United States. When a person enters the USA anywhere other than through an official port of entry, they violate Section 1325 of the US Immigration Code. The violation is called, “Entry Without Inspection” and it is important to point out that it is a civil violation, a misdemeanor, and not a criminal offense.
So while it is true that these millions of persons have broken a law, I believe it is important to put it in perspective. I would ask how many of you reading this have ever broken a law. I suspect that almost all of us have run a stop sign, gotten a speeding ticket, or maybe even fudged a bit on our taxes. My point is NOT to excuse breaking a law, but to put it into perspective. We all have broken a law at one time or another but then we take care of the matter by paying a fine. We are not dubbed an” illegal” for the rest of our lives. This is why I believe that calling a person “an illegal” is simply incorrect. Human beings are not illegal!
So to sum up, an undocumented immigrant is a person who enters and/or resides in the USA without proper immigration status. They are called undocumented to refer to the fact that they don’t have the correct documents or papers. They don’t have a valid visa. More people are beginning to use the term “unauthorized immigrants” which I personally find more to the point. While these folks have broken a law, this is almost never “the whole story”. Why don’t people come legally is the most often asked question I receive. It will be the answer to this question, a look at the reasons behind unauthorized immigration, that we will take up in our next post.