Bringing foreign policy home: An immigration officer’s daughter’s own lesson

Catherine Boudreau

Last semester I was excited to interview an undocumented American, or “illegal immigrant” for an assignment. I have met many immigrants throughout my life, mostly from Africa, because my father is an immigration officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in northern Vermont. He has always used his knowledge of the law to help immigrants in America. Therefore, I thought I had an understanding of the issue and went confidently into the interview.

However, things didn’t go as planned. I sounded like an idiot for most of it, completely uninformed. I soon realized that becoming a citizen of the United States is anything but easy, especially under this undocumented American’s circumstances. I assumed there was always a way, as many others probably do. However, that is far from the truth.

I hear the argument all the time: if foreigners want to come to the U.S., they should obey the rules and enter legally. If here illegally, they should just apply for a green card and wait their turn.

Let me put this into perspective. In reality, applying for a green card could mean an estimated 15 to 20 years wait from the time of filing an application until they are contacted by an immigration officer.

The most backlogged nationality is Mexican. Their estimated wait time is 131 years according to a report by Forbes.

This is because every country is limited to 7 percent of the total number of green cards allotted by Congress in a given year. Mexico is subject to this limit despite being the world’s eleventh most populous country.

If someone wants to become a permanent resident, which is the same thing as being a green card holder, there are five main ways.

One is to win the U.S. Diversity Lottery Program. It offers 55,000 diversity visas annually to persons who meet strict eligibility requirements from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The Department of State received over 9.1 million qualified entries during the 60-day application period for the 2009 lottery. Less than 1 percent receive one.

Second, if you have parents or a spouse who is a permanent resident of the U.S., they can file a petition on your behalf to obtain permanent residency for you. This can take several months to more than 10 years.

A third way to obtain permanent residency is if you can prove to immigration officials that you are fearful of persecution if forced to return to your home country. This is an appeal for asylum. These are rarely approved.

Fourth, if you have a professional-level job in the U.S. and your employer can prove that there are no qualified U.S. persons available for the position, your employer can file a petition on your behalf.

Lastly, there is the option of self-sponsorship. Certain scholars may find a route without any job offer. Only those of international reputation will qualify for permanent residency under this category.

Out of the estimated 11 million undocumented Americans living in this country, few fall under any of these five categories.

Ultimately, immigration is a long, expensive and complicated process.

If I just recently understood this, and I have a father who knows so much about it, what does that say about the rest of the country?

My father mentioned that many Americans have no need to explore immigration law until they meet a person who is affected by it. This is true, but I don’t think people realize who these people could be. They could be friends you’ve known your entire life.

There are 65,000 undocumented students who graduate high school every year. They’ve grown up just like me in the school system. Even though they consider America their country, America doesn’t think of them as one of its own.

It makes me wonder: Do those who oppose any path to legal status for undocumented Americans really understand what they are fighting for? Can they put a face on it? I have a funny feeling they can’t, because if they could, things would be different.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or “DREAM Act,” would provide a pathway to legal status for the undocumented students who graduate from high school each year. Those who qualify have lived in America for more than five years and were brought here before they were 16.

While certain states, including Connecticut, have passed their own versions of this bill, the Obama administration has avoided addressing immigration reform at the federal level. Instead, they have focused on deporting more than one million immigrants since 2008, the most in 60 years.

Meanwhile, other states, such as Arizona, Alabama and Mississippi are upholding the strictest laws to date regarding immigration.

This inconsistent policy across the United States only detracts from how important this issue is to our country’s future. Removing the uncertainty of “illegal” status allows undocumented students the opportunity to invest in higher education, and essentially our economy.