We hear the argument all the time: if foreigners want to work in the U.S., they should play by the rules and enter legally. If here illegally, they should go to the back of the line and wait for their number to be called.
This argument makes complete sense only if you know very little about the intricacies of U.S. immigration laws. The reality is that our immigration system makes it virtually impossible for the typical Mexican—by far the largest undocumented group and most frequent target of this argument—to enter the U.S. legally in his or her lifetime.
Take, for example, a 30-year old Mexican with a high school education and a sibling who is a U.S. citizen. According to data compiled by Forbes magazine, “playing by the rules” and applying for a green card could mean waiting in a line that stretches back an estimated 131 years!!! In most visa categories for Mexicans and Filipinos, the two most backlogged nationalities, applicants are looking at at least a 15- or 20-year wait from the time of filing their applications until they are contacted to schedule an appointment for an interview with an immigration officer.
Why such a long wait? The short answer is that current rules limit any single country to 7 percent of the total number of green cards allotted by Congress in any given year. Mexico is subject to this limit just like any other country despite being the world’s eleventh most populous country and a neighbor whose 2000-mile border with the U.S. marks the largest income gap between any two contiguous nations on Earth.
Mexican and Dominican nationals, for instance, both received about 30,000 family-based green cards in 2010. Mexico’s population, however, is 13 times that of the Dominican Republic’s. Add that there are about 7 times as many Mexicans in the U.S. who are able to petition for visas on behalf of relatives back home. This means that Mexicans have an infinitely longer wait than Dominicans simply by virtue of being born in a more populous country that has more entrenched ties with the United States.
But at least the person in the Forbes example has direct ties to a U.S. citizen. If you’re like most would-be Mexican immigrants—someone without family members who are U.S. citizens (or legal permanent residents) and with aspirations to wash dishes, clean bathrooms or pick onions—you are ineligible for a green card because you do not fall into any of the family-based or employment-based preference categories.
In this case, the only legal option would be an H-2A or H-2B visa for temporary labor in agriculture or other “low-skilled” areas like catering, landscaping, and construction. The probability of securing one of these visas is also extremely slim because a U.S. employer must first petition for the visa on the migrant’s behalf.
About 90,000 Mexicans worked on H-2A and H-2B visas last year. If this sounds like a large number, consider that it is equivalent to only 1.3 percent of the undocumented Mexican population in the U.S. and less than 0.7 percent of all the dishwashing, fast food, landscaping, janitorial, housekeeping, babysitting, construction, and hired agriculture jobs that U.S. employers needed to fill last year.
In all, the U.S. provided 178,999 visas to Mexicans for labor and family reunification purposes in 2010, equivalent to only 0.058 percent of total U.S. population. We could stand to offer more. (If anyone tells you that the U.S. provided 1.2 million visas to Mexicans, they are correct. The catch is that 971,886 of those were Border Crossing Cards, which are like tourist visas for people wealthy enough to return to their lives in Mexico. Another 68,161 visas were temporary entries for diplomats, government officials, people on official business, athletes and entertainers, etc.)
No one wants to be an illegal immigrant, primarily because no one wants to make a punishing 4-day trek though the Arizona desert that involves very real risks of dehydration in 110-degree heat and rape at the hands of a human smuggler. Most undocumented immigrants from Mexico come to the U.S. with the intention of working temporarily and returning home. But many end up staying for decades in an effort to capitalize on all they risked to get in illegally. They would jump at the chance to enter safely and legally on a temporary labor visa if only Congress provided them.
It’s silly to expect someone to go to the back of a line that never ends. If we want Mexican immigrants to play by the rules, we first need to create a set of rules that includes them in the game. Our current immigration system is the vestige of a system that was designed nearly half a century ago. A twenty-first century immigration policy should recognize Mexico’s unique status as our neighbor, Mexican workers’ desire to enter legally, and our economy’s dependence on their skills and labor.