America’s longtime confusion over immigration may best be symbolized in the “green card” not exactly being green.
Perhaps you assumed that green meant green. No, until recent years the wallet-sized visa sported a shade somewhere between tan and pink.
Today it has more green — but also some blue, mauve and lots of white.
Immigration lawyers note that the card’s true color is but one small, flickering factoid in a spectacular universe of things that many natural-born citizens think they know about the laws — or lack thereof — governing one of the most fiercely debated issues of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Amidst all the emotions expressed, “people know very little about even the basics” regarding migrating legally, residing illegally or seeking citizenship, said Mira Mdivani of the Mdivani Corporate Immigration law firm in Overland Park.
Her confused clients include attorneys and executives with companies seeking protection from deportation for immigrant employees. “I had this conversation literally minutes ago with someone who had 25 years of experience representing an employer,” she said.
“It’s a conversation we in this office have with people on a daily basis. In five minutes it’s clear they really haven’t a clue” about immigration law, which Mdivani said eats up more official pages than the tax code.
Imagine one news article trying to explain the tax code! No way. The same goes here with immigration.
Still, if you want to stand your ground in discussing what all sides recognize as a mystifying mess, the Q&A that follows touches on the most rudimentary points.
Q: OK, what’s a green card?
A: First, there are two general types of visas — “immigrant” and “non-immigrant.”
Green cards are immigrant visas issued to obtain “permanent resident status” but not U.S. citizenship. Subject to renewal, the cards enable lawful entry into the country for an indefinite period of time.
“Non-immigrant” visas are issued for a specific purpose and time length. Under this category fall student visas, family visits, vacations, business transfers and temporary work permits.
undocumented immigrants in U.S.
people obtained green cards in 2015
immigrants have become naturalized U.S. citizens in the past decade
of foreign-born residents in Kansas City region own their homes
area children of immigrants, most of whom were born in the U.S.
refugees are accepted into U.S. each year
Sources: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Greater Kansas City Economic Development Fund
And how does someone get this “permanent resident status”?
A common misconception is in thinking that immigrants submit their own applications for green cards.
The application in fact must be filed by a “sponsor” of that immigrant — either a close family member who is a U.S. citizen or an employer willing to support the immigrant for years.
Family members typically are spouses, parents or offspring. (Cousins aren’t allowed to apply.)
In rare cases a foreign-born person who is highly acclaimed can achieve U.S. resident status without a sponsor’s help. The law cuts a break to immigrants who have won major awards. “Someone who wins a Nobel Prize or an Oscar ... or has great wealth” may self-apply and become a permanent resident, said Mdivani.
So it’s not simple getting a green card. And that helps explain why this nation is home to 11 million undocumented people.
What else explains the 11 million?
The country’s borders are porous, that’s true. Advocates for stricter control also cite lax immigration enforcement by local police in many parts of the country, including rural areas where the labor is coveted.
Another reason for the 11 million is that these undocumented are mostly Mexicans. Because that’s a group some U.S. politicians have worked hard to limit, a Mexican’s average wait to win approval for a family-sponsored green card is 20 years or more.
Immigrants from highly prosperous nations — less inclined to emigrate but seen by some as more desirable — in many instances wait just a few years.
Misunderstanding of laws among the immigrants also keeps the illegal population high, said Angela Ferguson, an immigration lawyer in Independence.
“Most people think that marrying a U.S. citizen automatically makes you legal,” Ferguson said. “It’s not that easy.”
Steps for undocumented persons to achieve legal residency after a marriage include background checks on both spouses, interviews, waiting periods, more forms to fill out and often thousands of dollars in federal fees and legal costs.
What if an illegal immigrant is the parent of a child born in the U.S.?
The child, though a full American, would have a parent who’s still illegal.
That family could wait until the child reaches 21, when sons or daughters may start the process of sponsoring a parent’s quest for a green card. But reforms of the mid-1990s required that the parent return home before obtaining permanent residence status here.
And for Mexicans who came to the United States without any permission, a return home means not being able to re-enter this country for 10 years.
“Immigration laws are much more restrictive than people think,” said immigration lawyer Jessica Piedra, who has an office on Southwest Boulevard and works mostly with low-income families.
“I’ll tell families at the very start of the process, ‘Don’t expect any of this to be logical,’ ” she said. “A lot of steps you need to take (to become legal) are just hoops that politicians make us jump through.”
How many “employer-sponsored” green cards are issued?
In 2015, employer-sponsored visas represented 14 percent of just over 1 million immigrant visas obtained across the country.
The number of those visas could and should be higher, said Mdivani.
Federal law sets up a lottery each year for employers to apply for green cards and temporary work permits, which the government caps. In the face of crushing demand for highly educated workers in technical fields, the most recent lottery limited employers to 85,000 renewable, non-immigrant work permits known as H-1Bs.
Mdivani said the federal restrictions and high costs of securing H-1Bs send many of the world’s most talented college graduates to other countries to pursue careers.
Is the U.S. now seeing more legal immigration than ever?
Figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security show that the number of persons obtaining immigrant visas in any one year peaked at 1.8 million in 1991 — about 80 percent higher than in 2015. (Note that those figures don’t account for immigrants who entered illegally.)
Arguably the most significant infusion of immigrants occurred in the early part of the 20th century. The U.S. population at the time was only a third what it is now, yet nearly 12 million immigrants obtained green cards between 1905 and 1915.
By contrast, the decade of the economically depressed 1930s saw the issuance of green cards drop to fewer than 50,000 annually.
As for unlawful immigration, the total population of 11 million now thought to be living in the U.S. is down from an estimated 12 million a decade ago.
How do refugees figure in?
Despite concerns over weak vetting of America-bound war refugees, “it is probably the most onerous way of getting into the United States of all the ways you can get here,” said lawyer Bill Niffen of the Northland firm Barlow & Niffen.
Among the phalanx of organizations that work with the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to promote what a federal website calls “safe, orderly and regular” refugee migration: U.S. Agency for International Development; International Organization for Migration; the U.S. departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Labor; Regional Conference on Migration; U.S. Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs.
Non-governmental agencies also play a huge role in the mix.
What became of the much-discussed Dream Act?
The sweeping proposal to protect from deportation young immigrants illegally brought into the U.S. as children never became law.
Because of congressional resistance, President Barack Obama in 2012 issued an executive order that allowed for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or DACA. It allows certain undocumented residents who entered the country as minors to a renewable two-year period of safety from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.
Protection can be extended for as long as Obama’s executive order — affecting nearly 2 million “Dreamers” — remains intact.
Although having vowed as a candidate to reverse Obama’s executive orders, President Trump hasn’t yet changed DACA. “We’re going to work something out” with Dreamers, Trump said in December.
How many immigrants become U.S. naturalized citizens in a typical year?
Between 600,000 and 700,000.
Applicants for naturalization must be:
▪ At least 18 years old.
▪ A lawful permanent resident.
▪ Physically present in the U.S. for at least five years at the time of application.
▪ “Of good moral character,” say federal rules.
Since Trump’s swearing-in, has immigration enforcement gotten stricter?
No laws have changed.
Federal judges have set aside the president’s executive order for a temporary ban on travel into the U.S. of all refugees as well as citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. That issue may reach the U.S. Supreme Court, though Trump said Thursday that he would sign a new executive order as early as next week that would “comprehensively protect our country” while still defending his original travel ban in court.
As for widespread reports that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is conducting more aggressive roundups of undocumented immigrants, the evidence is mixed.
Trump has boasted on Twitter of an ongoing “crackdown.” But ICE has stated that recent arrests “did not represent an increased tempo” from stepped-up deportations conducted by the Obama administration. Over several years, “apprehensions and removals” have averaged 1,250 a week, according to a Syracuse University study.
In the vast majority of new cases in which undocumented immigrants have been taken into federal custody, they already were behind bars for other offenses, press accounts report.
“Right now I think it’s mostly business as usual,” said Independence lawyer Ferguson.
She added that immigrants fearful of being hauled away have legal rights similar to U.S. citizens with regards to the delivery of justice.
“They don’t have to open the door if an officer comes knocking” without a warrant, Ferguson said. They shouldn’t sign or say anything without consulting a lawyer. They’re entitled to a day in court.
The bottom line to America’s uproar over immigration is yours to figure out. No doubt there’s much to absorb.
The website of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (www.usics.gov) offers quick and reliable information, attorney Mdivani said.
She also suggest suggests that Americans reconfigure their lens through which they view standing policy.
“Most people think with their emotions first — it’s all about the immigrants themselves,” she said. “We should be concentrating on what laws are good for the nation: Who do we want to be as a people? What’s healthy for the economy and our country’s future?”
Mdivani and other area experts say reform is needed so that the laws welcome the world’s sharpest talents while preventing those who would engage in crimes from entering the country.
Said Niffen: “Of all the things we do as a country, we make immigration law as complicated as it can be.
“It’s not for the faint of heart.”