Immigration is a prominent issue in the upcoming 2016 presidential election. Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats fall on opposite ends of the “how to solve the immigration problem” spectrum. Donald Trump labeled a large swath of Mexican immigrants as criminals and pledges to build a wall along the southern border. He plans to ramp up deportations and remove all “illegal” immigrants. Ted Cruz followed suit, proposing a plan on his official website that is heavy on enforcement, light on due process, and focused on increased criminalization of immigration violations. Conversely, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders promise to end private immigration detention, strive to keep families together, and work toward comprehensive immigration reform that promises a path to citizenship to many immigrants with no lawful status.
As immigration attorneys, following the back and forth between presidential candidates and reading, watching, and listening to the general media coverage of immigration issues is often a frustrating experience. We find ourselves yelling at the television or complaining to our long-suffering family members about how “the immigration system does not actually work that way.” The “immigration problem” put forth for public consumption is, like many complex issues, over-simplified and mischaracterized. It’s no wonder that we often get questions from friends, clients and potential clients, family members, and acquaintances that highlight the misinformation clouding our country’s discourse on immigration. Below, we address some of the most common myths we hear inside and outside of the office.
If you marry a U.S. citizen or have U.S. citizen children, you cannot be removed (or deported) from the United States. Marrying or being married to a U.S. citizen does not guarantee that an immigrant can obtain lawful status in the United States. If an immigrant last entered the United States on a visa or through other lawful means, he/she may still be barred from obtaining lawful status because of certain criminal convictions, fraud, or other inadmissibility grounds. Immigrants who entered the United States without inspection may be eligible to obtain an immigrant visa through their spouses, but most need waivers of their unlawful presence, and waivers are not always obtainable. Lawful Permanent Residents who are married to U.S. citizens are still deportable for certain criminal convictions, including two crimes involving moral turpitude. For example, a Lawful Permanent Resident who is convicted of two petit larcenies (stealing an item or times valued at less than $200) in Virginia, which would likely garner little to no jail time, can lose his/her status and be removed from the United States.
U.S. citizen children do not automatically “anchor” their parent or parents to the United States either. Aside from being a derogatory term, there are no such things as “anchor babies.” The United States removes scores of individuals with U.S. citizen children. Some of these immigrants are removed because they have no lawful status and were ineligible for an immigration benefit, like asylum. Others are removed after they lose their status due to certain criminal convictions, including nonviolent property crimes. Between July 1, 2010 and September 31, 2012, the United States removed over 200,000 individuals who said they had children who were U.S. citizens.
Most immigrants commit crimes. They make our communities unsafe. Yes, some immigrants commit crimes. Some citizens commit crimes. 59% of the immigrants that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, removed in 2015 had been convicted of a crime. It’s important to note that a “crime” as defined by ICE is anything more serious than civil traffic offenses. This includes driving without a license, trespass, reckless driving, and other low-level misdemeanors that do not carry any jail time. It’s also important to note that there is no evidence that immigrants are more likely to commit violent crimes. Rather, there is ample evidence to suggest that immigrants commit violent crimes at a lower rather than non-immigrants. This is supported by studies and research that show that neighborhoods with higher numbers of immigrants are safer.
The Obama Administration does not enforce U.S. immigration laws. We chuckle when we hear politicians talk about how the current administration is soft on immigration because many immigration attorneys and policy advocates are extremely disappointed with the administration’s penchant for detaining women and children, most of whom have viable asylum claims, and for the high number of deportations in the last eight years. President Obama may profess liberal on progressive views on immigration, especially compared to Republicans currently running for the presidency, but from our standpoint in the trenches, we have not seen sweeping change in the immigration system in the last eight years. For example, we recently had to fight for years for one of our clients to receive prosecutorial discretion so that his immigration court case could be administratively closed. Although he entered the United States without inspection, he was a two-time survivor of metastasized cancer and a single father of a U.S. citizen child who paid taxes, had been in the United States for a decade, and had no criminal history. Even though the Department of Homeland Security ultimately exercised discretion in his case, the years long fight in this case is just one example that, contrary to popular belief, the current administration is actively enforcing our laws – even in the most sympathetic cases.
Immigrants without lawful status are a drain on our system and do not pay taxes. In the last seven years, we’ve probably met with less than five people – out of hundreds and hundreds and clients and potential clients– who do not pay taxes. These people include undocumented immigrants who pay taxes with a taxpayer identification number issued by the Internal Revenue Service rather than a Social Security number. We often hear, “The first thing I did when I started working was request a taxpayer id number.” We cannot say that all undocumented immigrants pay taxes, but many do. Our anecdotal evidence is in line with studies and research showing that immigrants without unlawful status contribute mightily to our federal, state, and local governments through taxes.
The United States government enacted many of our immigration laws in reaction to fear of certain groups of people – the Irish, Chinese railroad workers, dark-skinned Southern Europeans, Arabs, and Latin Americans. Laws and policies, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, Asian Exclusion Act, or Operation Wetback, focused on either keeping certain people out or making certain people leave. We see this playing out today as some politicians call for a ban on the immigration of Muslims or the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Immigrants often serve as our boogeymen. We may not be able to control ISIS or Al Qaeda or cultural changes that usher in new or non-traditional ways of thinking, but our “immigration problem” is something we have historically believed that we can easily understand and control. However, knowing the facts about immigration makes this “problem” much less black and white and much more grey. Most importantly, we have to remember that this “problem” is about people – mothers, sons, fathers, daughters, caregivers, orphans, siblings, activists, survivors, poets, workers, friends, and neighbors – many of whom saw the United States as a beacon of hope and freedom. Regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum, injecting the facts and a good dose of humanity into our public and private discourse might provide us with a better opportunity to solve our “immigration problem.”
Mattie Elsner is a legal writer for Zeman and Petterson, PLLC, an immigration law firm in Northern Virginia that represents individuals in humanitarian, family-based and employment immigration cases.