As immigration attorneys, we hear many common myths and misconceptions about immigration law, several of which have been repeated in recent letters to the editor published in this paper. In order for us to have any kind of responsible debate or discussion about immigration, we need to start with understanding the realities facing immigrant communities in America.
The first myth is that undocumented immigration costs taxpayers money. This ignores the immense economic contributions that immigrants make to their communities. Every time an immigrant worker prunes an apple tree, harvests a cherry, packs a box of pears, frames a home or cares for children while their parents work, that person is creating wealth for their employer and providing needed goods and services for the community. This wealth that is created for the employer enriches the community at large through taxes on the employer’s business as well as the money that the employer spends in the economy.
Whether undocumented workers pay more in taxes than they receive in direct benefits is a complex question, but most economists believe that immigrants of all kinds provide a net benefit to the U.S. economy and U.S. taxpayers. Anti-immigration groups, such as fairus.org, overestimate the costs in a variety of ways, most egregiously by including funds spent on education and benefits for U.S. citizen children of an undocumented parent, but not including the taxes that those children pay once they grow up and start working. All children cost taxpayers money as children, but that expense is an investment in their future.
The second myth is that people who are here without legal status have simply failed to “apply for citizenship” and “get in line.” The truth is that there is no line for people who want to immigrate to the United States. There is no application to become a legal permanent resident/citizen that is open to everyone. A person must qualify for a specific program to apply for legal status. We see people in our office every day that are seeking a pathway to legal status in the U.S. For most people in the world, including many people who have been living in our community for 20 or 30 years, such a pathway simply does not exist under our current immigration system. People do not choose to live in constant fear of being taken away from their children because they are too lazy to fill out a form.
For those who might qualify to apply for legal status, many of them are in fact “in line.” Immigration cases can take over 25 years. Children whose parents filed an application for them but who turned 21 while waiting must often file again and wait another 20 years. Many of the undocumented people in our Gorge community have already applied and are still waiting decades later.
The third myth is that people who do not have legal status in the United States have committed a crime. Lacking legal immigration status is a civil, not a criminal, violation. For example, while using a fake visa to enter the country is a crime, entering on a valid visa and then deciding to stay after the visa expires is a civil violation, not a crime. As a population, immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born U.S. citizens.
Finally, there is a very common misunderstanding of how immigration law has changed over time. In the days of Ellis Island, European immigrants did not have to do anything other than show up. The law assumed that they were eligible to immigrate to the United States. They did not have to file any paperwork or qualify for any particular program other than the color of their skin. After waiting only hours, they were permitted to enter the United States and to live here permanently, work here, and be eligible to apply for citizenship. At the same time, people from other parts of the world such as China and Japan were not allowed to immigrate. If our ancestors were trying to immigrate to the United States today under current law, it would likely not be possible for them to do so.
If you want to learn more about immigration, please look at the websites of the American Immigration Council at www.ameri-canimmigrationcouncil.org, or the American Immigration Lawyers Association at www.aila.org or feel free to reach out to any of us.