Published — June 29, 2012 Updated — January 26, 2018 at 12:40 pm ET

Facts American adults can learn from undocumented kids

Politicians’ public comments don’t explain why there’s no ‘right way’ to immigrate for most


Now that young illegal immigrants are an election-year football, Americans have an opportunity to learn a few things from the kids.

A lot of adults profess some degree of sympathy for these young people, who were born in undocumented parents’ native countries, brought here as very young children, either illegally or on visas parents overstayed. They’ve grown up here, gone to school here, speak English and feel American but are undocumented “through no fault of their own,” as both President Obama and GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney say.

But why can’t they go back to where they were born, line up and become legal “the right way?”

Young illegal immigrants have been asking the same sort of question for years, as demonstrated on forums started by so-called DREAMers. That’s the name for this group that derives from the once-bipartisan DREAM Act. The decade-plus-old failed federal proposal would have opened up a path for these youths to earn temporary legal status, and, eventually, a green card by serving in the military (which they can’t do now) or completing at least two years of college.

Here’s some of what DREAMers have learned. And they aren’t the kind of details you will get, lamented a Washington Post editorial, whenever the subject of immigration gets batted around by Romney, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — a GOP point man on the subject — and, to a lesser degree, President Obama.

Lesson one: As DREAMers now know, there is no Ellis Island-like line for them or anyone else to get into, either here on U.S. soil, or back in birth countries, to become legal immigrants. Visas to enter the United States are not open to anyone on a first-come, first-served basis, as long as they are willing to be patient and do it the “right way.”

As the Post editorial explains, the vast majority of would-be immigrants who are waiting in line were only able to get in a line because they were fortunate enough to have a direct family tie to a U.S. citizen or a U.S. legal permanent resident.

This leaves DREAMers, for the most part, out in the cold.

“On the campaign trail,” the Post editorial said, “it may sound tough or fair or common-sensical to demand that illegal immigrants ‘get to the back of the line.’ In fact, it is a convenient fiction, a trope designed more to obfuscate than resolve a policy mess that politicians find too hard to tackle.”

True, there are some DREAMers who have younger U.S.-born siblings who could one day constitute a family tie.

But those siblings have to be 21-years-old to petition to sponsor siblings. And because of country quotas on visas, most DREAMers would be looking at waits after that point that can stretch to 20 years. What do they do in the meantime?

An article published in the American Bar Association Journal about immigration “myths” delves into this further.

Lesson two: It’s unrealistic to think DREAMers’ predicament can be resolved by the tiny number of immigrant work visas available for U.S. employers to sponsor foreign workers.

DREAMers, who consider themselves Americans, aren’t technically foreign workers. They live here. And even if they pulled up stakes and went abroad to try and return to the U.S. via that route, for most it would like chasing the lottery. (There is an immigration lottery open to nationals from some countries, but that’s a different issue altogether.)

The Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center has a detailed just-the-facts description of the immigration visa system and suggests it’s unrealistic to try to squeeze out a solution for kids under the existing work-visa system. Even a brilliant DREAMer with a skill in demand risks being stranded if he or she tries the work-visa route.

Let’s say a college-educated DREAMer goes abroad to complete doctoral studies in genetics, like Robertino, whose story was published in 2008. Let’s say he later finds a U.S. employer interested in hiring him. It doesn’t stop there.

Employer visas are incredibly hard to qualify for and not always available. And a DREAMer would likely face being barred from re-entry to the United States for 10 years anyway. A congressional mandate from 1997 requires that anyone who entered the United States illegally and lived here for more than one year — when he or she was 18 or older — must be barred for a decade, automatically.

President Obama recently issued a directive to use prosecutorial discretion to not deport DREAMers, if they meet certain qualifications, and to allow them to apply for work visas as a ‘stopgap’ measure until Congress can get some consensus on a more permanent solution. Obama, who had been under attack by immigration rights activists for not doing something to help kids, supports the DREAM Act.

Romney said he’d veto the DREAM Act if it were ever passed. But he’s never clarified what he would do instead.

Lately, that’s been up to Cuban-American Rubio, who is reportedly being vetted as a potential Romney vice presidential running mate. Rubio appeared on the Charlie Rose Show June 26 and Rose asked him to talk about what he would do about illegal immigrants who have been here a long time, including kids who’ve grown up here.

On the Rose show, Rubio went to pains to say a solution should be found under the existing immigration system. He’s developing it, he said. But it can’t be the DREAM Act, Rubio said. With that “special pathway,” he said, “now these kids would quickly become citizens and bring in other relatives.” Actually, citizenship would take at least 10 years, which is arguably quick or arguably a long time.

It would be better, Rubio said, to give kids maybe 14 or 15 and younger a “nonimmigrant visa” so they can finish out their studies and work some. And then maybe after 10 years, start to finish, they would have “every opportunity” to be “petitioned for” under the existing system to get a green card. But Rubio never says how this could possibly take place, or who would do the petitioning on behalf of the DREAMers and based on what visa categories.

In line with what the Post’s editorial complained is misleading, Rubio also drew a distinction between illegal immigrants and legal immigrants who are currently waiting to get visas they were eligible to apply for through family links. “Someone needs to speak out for them,” he said. “They’ve done it the right way.”

Read more in Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

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