One of the weirdest movie scenes that reverberates in my brain is this one, from The Matrix:
I’m struck by the similarity between this imaginary spoon and “the line” our country’s vernacular has drawn for legal immigration. You know, the line that many politicians and pundits on the right point to when they say,
These people here illegally need to go to the back of the line and wait their turn like everyone else!
I used to talk the same talk. People who come to this country illegally are law breakers who should be kicked out. But then a trip to breathtakingly beautiful Costa Rica and relationship with a real person — one who was brought to this country illegally as a teenager by a man twice her age — caused me to re-examine my beliefs — and the facts — about immigration in this country.
I wanted to know: what exactly does it take to immigrate to the United States legally? Why are people bypassing the line for legal entry? What I discovered was shocking: for the vast majority of outsiders desiring citizenship, there is no legal means of immigration unless you already have family living here legally. Zero. Nada. To put it another way: there is no line to stand in!
A person who wishes to immigrate to our country must first have an immediate family member or potential employer petition our government on his or her behalf. Don’t believe me? Check out the government website, here.
To be eligible to apply for an immigrant visa, a foreign citizen must be sponsored by a U.S. citizen relative, U.S. lawful permanent resident, or a prospective employer, with a few exceptions. A U.S. citizen can also petition for the immigration of a foreign fiancé(e) to be married in the United States, or an orphan adopted abroad/to be adopted in the United States. Several immigrant visa categories that cover special types of workers or special circumstances are established by U.S. laws.
So, in the case of my friend who was a homeless teenager on the streets of Guatemala, who had no family in the United States and no employment prospects, there was no legal way to enter. The gate was barred, the road was blocked, and the river flooded.
Even if half of those who wished to come to our country had a U.S. citizen family member sponsoring them (who also met income requirements), the visa fees to immigrate legally are a burden so far out of reach they might as well be visas to Jupiter. The combined visa fees for a person who wishes to apply to be a legal immigrant to the U.S. is $650. This amount includes the money the sponsor must pay and the money the immigrant must pay. If you are a Latin American widow whose innocent husband was gunned down by drug violence and want a better life for your three children, you and your US sponsor have to somehow come up with $6,403.
Ok. That might be doable if you save for awhile, right? Maybe $6400 doesn’t seem like much money to you — after all, many Americans spend that much a year on entertainment. But if you live in Costa Rica, $6400 in U.S. dollars is equivalent to $355,807 in colónes, the Costa Rican currency. If you live in Mexico, that amount of money is equivalent to $8494 pesos. If you are Nicaraguan, you have to come up with $16, 903 cordobas.
Imagine with me for a moment that you are a chambermaid in Mexico. You work 50 hours a week and earn 3000 pesos a month. 3000 isn’t bad, right? Well, your tiny apartment outside the city is 2858 pesos a month. Your basic utilities are 700 a month — you haven’t bought any food yet, and you are already sinking. So let’s say you take a second job and work nights for another 25 hours a week (for a 75 hour work week), increasing your income to 4500 pesos a month. After rent and utilities, you have 942 pesos left. A monthly pass to get you to and from work is about 350. Food is 650 a month to get a liter of milk, a loaf of bread, a carton of eggs, a few apples, and a kg of rice once a week — but since you only have 592 to work with, you go hungry. You are a hard worker who wants to enjoy the prospect of upward mobility, of making enough money to fill the pantry and still pay the bills. And there is nothing left to save for the visa fee. Even if you had a family member citizen willing to sponsor you, the high cost of entry is as impossible as flying to the moon in a hot air balloon. This scenario makes me wonder…are some laws so restrictive that they are immoral?
To my Guatemalan friend, coming up with the visa fee as a homeless teenager was so far out of her reach that she didn’t even try. Her low wage full-time job earned less than $50 a month. She had no family to sponsor her. So when an older man flirted with her and offered to get her to the U.S. illegally, the land of opportunity, she jumped at the chance, against her mother’s wishes. She was a teenager…just like the ones pouring across the border today.
Because I used to think the same way, I can hear some people exclaiming,
But it’s not MY fault they live in __________ (name of country)! That’s just their lot in life.”
I don’t know that this mindset is what Jesus had in mind when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is our neighbor? Who are the least of these? Does our mandate to look out for the least of these stop at our borders? It makes me wonder: when God looks at this creation he made, does he see national boundaries, cultural boundaries, or no boundaries? Let’s take a look at Luke 10:
Now an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you understand it?” The expert answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But the expert, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, but when he saw the injured man he passed by on the other side. So too a Levite, when he came up to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan who was traveling came to where the injured man was, and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever else you spend, I will repay you when I come back this way.’ Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The expert in religious law said, “The one who showed mercy to him.” So Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”
Clearly, when the Samaritan crossed over and helped the Jew (by the way, Jews and Samaritans were enemies and hated each other), Jesus illustrated the principle of becoming neighborly, specifically with people who aren’t of your own tribe/group/nation. I don’t see that neighborly attitude in the Republican Party platform or in the rhetoric of those who scorn any form of guest worker program. Our country’s immigration policies sacrifice mercy at the hands of cumbersome, man-made laws. When Jesus healed (i.e., performed work) on the Sabbath, he broke the law. When his disciples did not wash their hands before they ate, they broke the law. From Matthew 15:
Then Pharisees and experts in the law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If someone tells his father or mother, “Whatever help you would have received from me is given to God,” he does not need to honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God on account of your tradition. Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me,
and they worship me in vain,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
I think we Christians in America need to take a hard look at our mindset towards our neighbors. Are we nullifying the word of God — love your neighbor as yourself — on account of our tradition, our man-made rules and regulations?
I am a patriot — but sometimes the laws of this country need to be repealed and rewritten (think: Prohibition? Obamacare?). It would be a good idea for our current legislators to go back into history and see how we used to treat our neighbors and learn what genuine lawmaking looks like. Did we make prospective immigrants form a line back then? Our founding fathers were debating about immigration and naturalization all the way back in 1790 in a vote on a Rule of Naturalization.
The first clause enacted, that all free white persons, who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof, before a magistrate, by oath, that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to all the rights of citizenship, except being capable of holding an office under the State or General Government, which capacity they are to acquire after a residence of two years more.
All they had to do to gain entry to this country was to give an oath that they intended to live here. James Madison didn’t think it wise to admit just anybody, however, and had this to say during the debate:
When we are considering the advantages that may result from an easy mode of naturalization, we ought also to consider the cautions necessary to guard against abuses. It is no doubt very desirable that we should hold out as many inducements as possible for the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us, and throw their fortunes into a common lot with ours. But why is this desirable? Not merely to swell the catalogue of people. No, sir, it is to increase the wealth and strength of the community; and those who acquire the rights of citizenship, without adding to the strength or wealth of the community are not the people we are in want of.
Not only did James Madison believe immigration was a good policy, but he thought it necessary to entice “the worthy part of mankind” to come settle here in order to increase the wealth and strength of the community. Mr. Lawrence responded:
The gentleman has said he would admit none but such as would add to the wealth or strength of the nation. Every person who comes among us must do one or the other; if he brings money, or other property with him, he evidently increases the general mass of wealth, and if he brings an able body, his labor will be productive of national wealth, and an addition to our domestic strength. Consequently, every person, rich or poor, must add to our wealth and strength, in a greater or less degree.
I like the way these men debated, and I happen to agree with Mr. Lawrence that every able bodied human being can add to our wealth and our strength as a nation. Those were very different times, but it’s interesting to note that even our earliest legislators saw no need to force into a line those who wished to come be a part of our country.
Certainly The New Colossus, the poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, has no notion of any sort of line:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
One hundred years after the debate about Naturalization, Congress on both sides of the aisle passed the first restrictions on admittance to our shores by forbidding entry to prostitutes and convicts in 1875. The next laws, in 1882, curbed Chinese immigration as well as those who, upon examination, “shall be found among such passengers any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge…such person shall not be permitted to land.” The same legislation placed a head tax of $.50 on each immigrant. In 1885 contract labor workers were banned. In 1907 the head tax was increased, and people who had physical or mental defects or TB, as well as children unaccompanied by parents, were added to the exclusion list. In 1917 our esteemed government added even more restrictions, excluding
idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, criminals, beggars, any person suffering attacks of insanity, those with tuberculosis, and those who have any form of dangerous contagious disease, aliens who have a physical disability that will restrict them from earning a living in the United States…, polygamists and anarchists, those who were against the organized government or those who advocated the unlawful destruction of property and those who advocated the unlawful assault of killing of any officer.
They also raised the “head tax” to $8 a person. The first quotas were established in 1921 as a temporary measure — these were made permanent in 1924, when the Border Patrol was also created.
During the last century, even more immigration laws were created barring x, y, and z and establishing regulations q, r, and s:
- 1943 – Bracero Program allowed importation of agriculture workers
- 1946 – allow for immigration of foreign-born spouses and fiance(e)s of armed forces
- 1948 – admit persons fleeing persecution
- 1950 – Exclusion and deportation laws expanded. Aliens required to report their addresses annually.
- 1952 – Multiple laws brought into one, re-establishing national origins quota system, limited immigration from Eastern Hemisphere, established preference for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens, tightened security
- 1965 – national origins quota system abolished, but still kept ceilings in place and established a seven category preference system
- 1978 – a world-wide limit of 290,000 was created
- 1980 – reduced the limit to 270,000 and removed refugees as a preference category
- 1986 – comprehensive reform act (IRCA) which legalized illegals who had been in country since January 1, 1982, prohibited the hiring of those known to be in the country illegally, allowed for temporary agriculture workers, established visa waiver pilot program.
- 1990 – increase cap to 675,000 immigrants beginning in 1995, created separate admission categories for family-sponsored, employment-based, and diversity immigrants, revised all grounds for exclusion and deportation, authorized A.G. to grant temporary protected status to undocumented aliens of some countries who had armed conflict or natural disasters
All of these man-made traditions certainly make it difficult for us to truly be neighbors, don’t they? Under our current mess of complicated laws, rules and regulations, unless you have family here or you have landed a job with a US company that is willing to sponsor you — you cannot get in line because the line does not exist for your kind.
I submit that the reason there are over 20 million people living and working in the shadows of this country as illegal aliens is because they found the gold-encrusted gate to the road to legality welded shut and lined with razor wire — so they dug around it. No longer are we the nation legally open to the tired, poor, huddled masses. A tired, poor, huddled person living in Costa Rica who has no family in the United States but wishes to immigrate here might as well set his sights on Mars as raise the funds to come to this country with a visa.
I am sorry, my friends who want to become American citizens. I am sorry you are poor and desperate — I hate that our golden gate is tarnished with misunderstanding and incomprehensible laws. I drove through your potholed streets and saw you riding decrepit bicycles. I saw the buildings half-built, the villages filled with peeling painted adobe houses so tiny they’d fit in my kitchen.
But most of all, I am sorry there is not a legal path for you to find a better life here in the United States. I am sorry there is not a line for you to stand in, because I am not your relative, nor am I an employer who could sponsor you. I would if I could, though!
But know that I will be asking my politicians to go back into our nation’s history and wipe out all these complex rules and regulations. I will ask them to restore our golden gate and lead us back to a time when we believed that every person, rich or poor, who wants to be a citizen of this country, has something worthy to contribute, rather than automatically assuming all prospective immigrants are leeches who will steal away our jobs on the one hand or live off welfare on the other.
A long time ago, when our government was simpler and less intrusive, the only barrier to entry to the U.S. was a sworn oath of allegiance, and the only barrier to citizenship was two-years residency. We’ve strayed a long, long way off that initial welcome mat.
I’m not suggesting that we throw open the gates and start administering oaths. But I am suggesting that we need to have immigration reform NOW. Not after the next election, but now, because the situation has reached a tipping point. Children are surging across the border to such an extent that our border control can’t even process them. In the absence of any path to entry that makes sense and is attainable, poor, needy children have resorted to creating their own path, scorning the dangers of human trafficking and slavery along the way.
Our current immigration policy mocks The New Colossus. It seems to me that unless things change drastically, it would be more honest to place a “Stop Unless You Are Wealthy and Connected” sign in the Statue of Liberty’s hand and to re-write the poem at her base:
“Line up your connected, your prosperous,
Your highly educated few yearning to breathe free,
The scientific scions of your teeming metropolis.
Send these, the property owners, upwardly bound to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden fortress!”
Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?