Path to US citizenship leaves many in dark

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-27 19:58:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In his speech on immigration last week, US President Barack Obama outlined his plan to offer relief to some undocumented immigrants through an executive order. This is a major step the president took in the face of opposition from Republicans in Congress to fulfill an overdue promise he made in his first presidential campaign in 2008 and then again in his reelection campaign in 2012.

The speech made many people in the US cry. But the tears were for different reasons.

For the undocumented who have been in the US for more than five years, and who have children that are US citizens or permanent residents, and have no criminal records, it was happy tears. They are the ones who will be allowed to stay and work in this country, a status that, although not permanent, is much better than having to worry about being deported at any time - which is their current plight.

For others who don't fit those requirements, the tears were of disappointment. They also had been waiting for this day for years. But it turns out that it makes no difference to their lives. They have to continue lives shrouded by uncertainty.

No policy can benefit all. There are always those left behind. In the case of immigration, the 11 million undocumented immigrants have long been a very awkward problem in the US.

Both parties realize the country doesn't have enough resources to deport them all, but they cannot allow all of them to stay either. This means any immigration solution is likely to be an incomplete one.

Considering the strong resistance from Republicans to offering a legal status to undocumented people and the possible efforts they may take to block the executive order, this partial solution might be the best the president can get done.

But a policy with 5 million people benefiting and 6 million left out is not likely to create stability. It has the seeds of its own destruction embedded in it, which could eventually sprout out and shatter all the goals the new policy is meant to achieve.

For example, the presidential executive order could stop many families from being torn apart. But it left the integrity of more families unprotected.

Some studies expect the average wage to be boosted when the policy brings many immigrant workers, who would otherwise have to accept wages below minimum requirements, into legal status. But this is also questionable when there are still enough undocumented workers who will take whatever pay levels employers decide to give them.

And although the president also aims to tighten border security in this package, the reduction in the number of undocumented immigrants will likely be short-lived.

Those who still want to cross the border from Mexico or elsewhere will be encouraged by the new policy and by the continued existence of many undocumented people living in the US.

The number will soon rise back to the former level, if not higher. But of course, that will be a problem for future presidents given Obama only has two years left.

But those who shed sad tears cannot only blame the president for not being treated equally. The imperfection of the Obama proposal is merely a reflection of the fundamental problem in the US immigration system.

Despite the American belief that people are born equal, immigration policy has always pointed in the opposite direction.

The system divides immigrants into those who are haves and those who are have-nots, and the differences between them may be more a question of timing and luck, rather than anything more fundamental.

Some will be able to get green cards in months, and others will have to wait for more than 10 years to join their families who live in the US. A lot of it is like the annual lottery that the US government runs to give people from many countries the chance to gamble on getting a green card.

It is like a system that has some nationalities, such as the Chinese and Indians, waiting many years to qualify for green cards, while people from some other countries with fewer applicants can get them much more quickly. The invisible immigration prison incarcerates more people than the physical ones do.

Wing Lam, a labor activist in the New York, once claimed US immigration policy is what turns immigrant-dominated neighborhoods like Chinatown into modern slave plantations. It may sound extreme. But it contains some truth.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: Viewpoint, Rong Xiaoqing

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