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Currently, there are approximately 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. These 11.5 million people are spouses, parents, children, Dreamers, coworkers, and neighbors who don’t have the correct paperwork to be present in the US. Here are some facts about immigrants and their families:
The presence of these 11.5 million aspiring citizens with no pathway to citizenship demonstrates the brokenness of the current immigration system and the need for systemic reform.
Resource: New York Times, “Here’s the Reality About Immigrants in the United States”
The majority of undocumented immigrants work in so-called “low skill” jobs like construction, factory, restaurant, and childcare related work — occupations with strict limitations on work visas.
For example, if you are an adult child of a US citizen, live in Mexico, and are not married, you would have to wait over 20 years to be reunited with your parent in the US.
The US has for decades also practiced what has been described as a “keep out” policy at the border and a “help wanted” policy inside. The US economy runs on immigrant labor (see Section III, below). Certain politicians and demographics may say that they don’t want undocumented immigrants here. But immigrants perform so many crucial functions in core industries that many businesses couldn’t do without them. Many immigrants come here for economic opportunity, but America needs them just as much.
The short story is that they can’t. Many Americans think that “getting legal” is as simple as going down to the closest federal building and filling out some forms. But our outdated immigration policies create enormous legal barriers and make becoming legal impossible for many undocumented immigrants.
Undocumented immigrants cannot apply for a green card within US borders — but if they leave the US, return to their country, and apply at a US consulate, they are ineligible to return.
Keep in mind that enduring a bar does not mean an immigrant will be able to return after the bar is over — they are just no longer banned. A permanent ban from the United States is applied to anyone who:
After 10 years, the aspiring immigrant may request permission to return from the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Individual immigration cases are tricky because each one is unique, and dependent on each person’s personal history, how they came to the US, how long they’ve been here, the circumstances in their country of origin — and whether or not they’ve been lucky in their encounters with immigration officials.
There are a number of ways an undocumented immigrant living in the US could come to the attention of immigration authorities, including (but not limited to):
Referring to an individual as “illegal” is legally inaccurate. Federal immigration law generally declares unlawful unauthorized presence in the US a civil violation – though entering the country illegally is classified as a federal misdemeanor. Some 40% of immigrants entered the US legally through a visa obtained for work, study, or tourism and simply remained in the US after the visa expired.
While the legal term “alien” is defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act as “any person not a citizen or national of the United States,” opponents of immigration use the term “illegal alien” to dehumanize immigrants. This dehumanizing rhetoric is meant to:
AP Stylebook announced that writers should use the phrase “people who have immigrated illegally” and refrain from the terms: “illegal immigrant; an illegal alien; an illegal; illegals; or undocumented,” in April 2013. Since then, the majority of the media has retired those phrases.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained that “to call them illegal aliens seemed and does seem insulting to me… I think people paint those individuals as something less than worthy human beings and it changes the conversation.”
A Dreamer (also written “DREAMer”) is a young person who qualifies for the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) is a piece of legislation first introduced to Congress in 2001 that grants a pathway to citizenship to young people who were brought to the United States as children without documentation. These are young people who are American in every way except on paper. They have grown up in this country and consider themselves to be American, but lack the documents to fully engage in society.
Unfortunately, the DREAM Act has never been passed into law, but immigrant youth who would qualify for it still refer to themselves as “Dreamers”. (See more about Dreamers here).
Immigration reform with a path to citizenship is popular — polls have consistently shown that a supermajority of Americans support legislation that would recognize immigrants who are already here. In March 2017, CNN found that 90% of Americans, including 87% of Republicans, back a path to citizenship. Seventy-one percent oppose Donald Trump’s plan to mass deport all undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
However, we don’t need to wait for comprehensive immigration reform to improve the quality of life for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
States that want to be supportive of their immigrant populations can:
At the local level, cities and counties can:
America works best when we all do our part and work together as one nation, but our broken immigration policies are holding us back. Today, the lack of immigration reform costs us:
Donald Trump might’ve put it most succinctly when he said that most undocumented immigrants are “bringing drugs…bring crime. They’re rapists.” But opponents of immigration throughout US history have falsely accused groups they didn’t like of being dangerous and lacking in morals.
The truth is, multiple studies have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Among people aged 18-54, 1.53% of native Americans are incarcerated, as are 0.85% of undocumented immigrants and 0.47% of documented immigrants.
Even when some undocumented immigrants are described as having criminal records — as they sometimes are by immigration officials who seek to justify their detention — that statement can be misleading, and does not mean they have committed any serious crime. An immigrant may have a “record” because:
Similarly, immigration agents will sometimes note that someone they’ve detained has a prior deportation order. This just means that a judge, at some point (maybe decades ago, when attitudes were different), recognized that the person was there without status and ordered that person removed. A prior deportation order does not reflect whether that person is a deportation priority or not.
Finally, crossing the border is a misdemeanor, while being in the US without status is a civil violation — not a crime. This means that undocumented immigrants in the US can be deported or removed, but their undocumented status does not make them criminals.
Donald Trump made a campaign pledge out of building a border wall — but the truth is that the communities around the border are actually some of the safest in America. That’s why members of Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — from around the border area all oppose building the wall. It would be a huge waste of money (Trump wants to spend billions of dollars on it) for an imagined problem, as border crossings are currently at a 17-year low.
There are major problems with building a border wall, as well: land on the border is not particularly well-suited for building, and much of it is private land that would have to be reclaimed through eminent domain. If Trump decides to pursue the wall, millions of taxpayer dollars would be spent over many years taking land away from Americans for a project nobody wants. Polls have shown that more than six in ten voters don’t support building the wall.
Since the government cannot (and should not) remove all 11 million undocumented immigrants, it would make the most sense for immigration officials to focus on removing immigrants who are actually dangerous or who have committed serious crimes. The rest of the immigrant population should be left alone, because then they’ll trust the police enough to report those who commit serious crimes, and because immigration officials won’t be so busy trying to process “low priority” immigrants that they overlook people whom we really want to deport.
Think of the undocumented population as drivers on a highway. On a highway, everyone overspeeds a little bit, meaning that none of the drivers are in strict accordance with the law. But many people would think it was unfair for drivers to be pulled over for going just a little bit above the limit. Many people would think that the best use of a police officer’s time would be to go after people who are egregiously speeding, who actually present a danger to other drivers.
Undocumented immigrants are a crucial piece of the US economy. Some 70% of all farmworkers in the US are immigrants, and immigrants also contribute heavily to the construction, restaurant, food preparation, hospitality, retail, and manufacturing sectors.
Contrary to the claim from opponents of immigration like Donald Trump, immigrants do not take jobs away from Americans — they do jobs that Americans don’t want to do, and immigrants don’t have long-term negative effects on the overall wages and employment of native-born workers. Meanwhile, immigrants do start businesses, create jobs, and make major contributions to the economy.
Reports have shown that the mass deportation of immigrants would lead to:
The importance of undocumented immigrants to the economy, and the story of what happens when they’re gone, actually played out in Georgia and Alabama, which around 2011 passed anti-immigrant state laws that led local immigrants to leave for other states. The agricultural industry there collapsed without immigrant labor to work the fields, as crops were left to rot and farmers went out of business. Half a decade later, agriculture in Georgia and Alabama has still not recovered.
The same issue applies to farmers, dairy farms, and ranchers from California to Washington to New Mexico to Michigan to Florida. Dairy farms say that immigration enforcement under the Trump Administration could lead to $8/gallon milk. And repeatedly, farmers have told stories about trying to find American workers to do the same jobs immigrants do — only to have the native-born Americans quit after mere hours in the field.
There’s no single definition of what a sanctuary city is, but generally speaking, it’s a city (or a county) that limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation.
When an undocumented immigrant is in jail, local police can either decide to let that person go after whatever they’ve been put into jail for is cleared up. This is what police in so-called “sanctuary cities” do. Or they can hold that person until immigration agents come pick them up for detention and deportation. This is what the Trump Administration wants cities to do — even though multiple court rulings have actually found this practice to be unconstitutional.
Sanctuary cities are safer than cities that aren’t as friendly to immigrants. This is because cities with pro-immigrant policies see better relationships between immigrant communities and the police. Immigrants aren’t as afraid to report crimes, give tips, or testify as witnesses when they know that interactions with the police won’t lead to their deportation. In contrast, one disturbing trend we’ve noticed since the dawn of the Trump Administration involves immigrant women refusing to report rapists and domestic abusers out of fear of deportation.
How to make sense of the alphabet soup of federal agencies related to immigration and immigration enforcement?
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): handles the removal of undocumented immigrants from the interior of the US. When we reference federal immigration agents who come to jails to pick up immigrants, or agents who carry out immigration raids, or agents who come to homes or courthouses to arrest immigrants, we are usually talking about ICE.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP): CBP are the folks you’ll see at borders and airports when you’re trying to leave or come back into the US. CBP also interacts with migrants (including asylum seekers) who come to the US-Mexico border. CBP also has broad powers to operate anywhere in the US that’s within 100 miles of any land or coastal border (and that’s a lot of territory). Politico once called CBP “America’s most-out-of-control law enforcement agency”, while a former CBP official has called CBP more corrupt than any other law enforcement agency. You can read more about CBP’s history of offenses here and here..
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): the department which handles naturalization and citizenship; administers green cards, visas, and employment authorization; handles DACA; adjudicates asylum claims and temporary protected status, and more.
In a sentence, Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement policy consists of mass deportation. In a way that was not true of his predecessors, Trump is conducting mass, indiscriminate deportations of immigrants, including:
Trump is also trying to restrict immigration in other ways, notably through his two attempted Muslim bans, unwillingness to admit refugees, reported turning away of asylum applicants at the border (which is illegal under international law), and apparent desire to end temporary protected status for immigrants who have it.
What’s Trump after? As commentators have noted, Trump and his advisers are acting on policies guided by ethno-centrism, i.e. a desire to reshape American demographics for the long term and preserve an ideal of the US as a white-dominant country.
Trump claimed during his campaign that he would focus on deporting “bad hombres”. But since becoming president, he and his officials have made it clear that anyone who is undocumented in the US is at risk of deportation, anytime. “All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” an ICE spokeswoman said recently.
It should be noted that Sessions is a famous opponent of immigration, both legal and undocumented. Sessions is even moving the Department of Justice toward having more influence over immigration and deportation, for example by directing US attorneys to be more aggressive on immigration enforcement.
Mass deportation comes at a huge cost: not only relative to how much as spend on deportations, but also in relation to the industries that are crippled when immigrant workers leave, families that are torn apart, children who are left to grow up in foster care, communities that are less safe because they feel like they can’t trust the police, decrease in reported crimes, exploitation of immigrants who cannot report bad landlords or employers to the police, impact on businesses that depend on immigrant customers, and much more.
President Obama had two main programs meant to help undocumented immigrants during his Administration — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA).
In 2012, President Obama announced he would stop deporting young immigrants who met the criteria outlined by the DREAM Act and created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA is not legal status, but provides:
Because DACA was announced as one of President Obama’s executive actions, it’s possible for DACA to be rescinded at any time under Trump (or any president following him). The Trump Administration’s record on this topic is muddled — Trump has claimed that he will treat Dreamers with “heart”, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that the Administration is not targeting Dreamers. However, Sessions has also said that the Administration “cannot promise” that Dreamers won’t be deported. And as a matter of fact, Trump almost deported one Dreamer whom ICE kept claiming was in a gang, even though he wasn’t. And he did deport another Dreamer whom the Administration originally claimed had expired DACA, when in fact it was still valid.
As of April 2017, the question of what Trump will do with DACA — whether he will kill the program, whether the program will keep renewing the status of those who have already applied, and whether Trump will deport Dreamers regardless of active DACA — is very much an open question.
Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) was a policy created by the Obama Administration which would grant status to certain undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States since 2010 and have children who are American citizens or lawful permanent residents. DAPA is not full legal status, but in this case would have come with a three-year, renewable work permit and some protection from deportation.
In August 2014, 52% of Americans supported President Obama taking unilateral actions concerning immigration in the continued absence of legislation. To qualify, immigrants would have to:
On December 4, 2014, the Texas attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Obama Administration on behalf of 26 states challenging DAPA (and the DACA expansion that accompanied it). On February 12, 2015, federal judge Andrew Hanen ordered a temporary injunction against the DAPA program and DACA expansion, a decision which the Supreme Court refused to reconsider in June 2016.
Presidents before Obama took major action on immigration, as well.
Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which provided legal status and eventually citizenship for approximately 3 million undocumented immigrants, provided they had arrived in the US prior to 1982. However, the spouses and children of those 3 million were not protected from deportation. Therefore in 1987, Reagan granted protection from deportation to children of parent(s) who qualified for legal status under the 1986 immigration law, essentially the same protection from deportation that is granted to undocumented immigrants through Obama’s DACA program.
In 1990, former President Bush established family fairness, by which family members residing with a legal immigrant and who were in the US prior to the 1986 immigration law were protected from deportation and granted work authorization. The order extended the number of visas granted based on familial ties, in an effort to expand family reunification efforts.
In short, nothing.
Congress first considered The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in 2001. The bill came very close to becoming law in 2010, when it was passed by the House in the lame-duck session of Congress and won a majority of votes in the Senate. Unfortunately, due to Senate rules, the bill needed 60 votes to advance and it fell just five votes short. The DREAM Act was last introduced in 2011 but failed to pass. The DREAM Act would have provided conditional resident status (and eventual permanent resident status and citizenship) for young immigrants who:
In 2013, the Senate passed S.744: the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act; a bipartisan bill aimed at fixing the immigration system. S.744 included provisions for:
In an incredible and rare show of bipartisanship, S.744 passed the Senate by a 68-32 vote, which included all Democrats and 16 Republicans. However, the bill was never taken up in the House of Representatives, despite a related bill, HR 15, having 200 cosponsors. The necessary votes were there to pass bipartisan immigration reform, but then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refused to bring it to the floor.
So far in this Congressional session, immigration-related bills have mainly focused on Dreamers. Two of the most commonly discussed bills, the Bridge Act and the Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act, would not provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers, and are unlikely to be taken up by Congress.
The Bridge Act (S. 128/H.R. 496) is a bipartisan piece of legislation which would allow DACA recipients and those eligible for DACA to apply for “provisional protected presence” and work authorization for a renewable three-year period. The bill would also impose restrictions on the sharing of information in DACA and provisional protected presence applications with ICE and CBP for purposes of immigration enforcement. The Bridge Act does not offer a pathway to citizenship, but it does allow Dreamers the ability to work and participate in American society without fear of deportation.
RAC would grant conditional legal permanent status to immigrants who have arrived before the age of 16, have been in the United States since January 1, 2012, have graduated high school, and have either been accepted into college or vocational school, applies to enlist in the military, or works with an existing valid work authorization. The conditional status will be cancelled if they become dependent on government, are dishonorably discharged from the military, or are unemployed for more than a year. The conditional status would become permanent after 5 years if they graduate from college or vocational school, are honorably discharged from the military or has served for 3 years, or have been employed for at least 48 months.
Congressman Steve King (R-IA) earned his infamous anti-immigrant reputation first through his comparison of immigrants to dogs and cattle. Since then, he said that immigrants are drug traffickers with “calves the size of cantaloupes” from running across the border. This year, he said that we “can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies” and that “I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogenous that we look a lot the same.”
Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) pushed efforts to pass enforcement-only bills such as mandatory E-Verify. Further, he attempted to kill the diversity visa during his tenure as leader of the House Judiciary Committee. Finally, Smith served as the intellectual author of the famous 1996 anti-immigration law.
Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) theorized that terrorists send pregnant women to the US to create American-hating US citizens, “terror babies,” as he referred to them. He further contended that radical Islamists immigrate to the US successfully by crossing the border with “Hispanic-sounding names.”
Congressman Mo Brooks (R-AL) would “do anything short of shooting” immigrants in order to resolve what he sees as the problem with immigration. He also argued that “anything that is lawful, it needs to be done,” (which for him did not include immigration reform with a path to citizenship). Finally, he publicly supported Alabama’s self-deportation law HB 56.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act in 2005 while serving as the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. This bill would have provided financing for an extended fence with advanced surveillance for the southern border. Further, Sensenbrenner supports E-Verify and condemns any form of amnesty.
Congressman Lou Barletta (R-PA) once stated that “the majority that are here illegally are low-skilled or may not even have a high school diploma. The Republican Party is not going to compete over who can give more social programs out.” Barletta further contended that immigrants were transforming America into a “sinking ship.” Barletta serves on the board of FAIR, one of the John Tanton anti-immigrant groups (explained below).
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) explained to a Dreamer who visited his office to plea for immigration reform that, simply put, he “hates illegals.”
Now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, when he was in the Senate, was one of the Senate’s top opponents of immigrants and immigration reform. He has extremely close ties with the John Tanton network of anti-immigrant groups, including CIS, NumbersUSA, and FAIR. Sessions has received numerous awards from the groups, and he repeatedly quotes studies sponsored by the organizations. Sessions firmly supports self-deportation policies, including Alabama’s self-deportation law HB 56, and he voted against the DREAM Act in 2012. See more about Sessions here and here.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) invited four John Tanton network witnesses and Kris Kobach, Mitt Romney’s immigration advisor (and member of the Trump transition team), to a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on the 2013 immigration bill to testify about the perils of immigration and why we should close our borders. Prior to President Obama’s executive actions in November 2014, Grassley sent multiple letters to Obama declaring that any announcement would be an “abuse of authority”, even though he supported Bush’s executive actions on immigration in 2008.
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) vehemently opposes any form of amnesty, and instead “demands an ongoing focus on security and workplace enforcement before considering steps to grant legal status, let alone citizenship.” Cornyn proposed an intensely anti-immigrant amendment to the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill of 2013. In 2014, he proposed the “Humane Act” in response to increased immigration from Central America, which would have facilitated the deportation of children fleeing violence in Central America. For multiple years, America’s Voice called Cornyn our immigration “Hypocrite of the Year”.
To really understand opponents of immigration reform in America, you have to understand who John Tanton and his network are.
In the 1970s, a Michigan ophthalmologist named John Tanton became obsessed with eugenics, overpopulation, and the idea of America being taken over by people of color. He backed sterilization, wrote about how “a European-American majority” is required to maintain American culture, and worried about “less intelligent” people being allowed to have children.
Tanton started a whole array of anti-immigrant groups including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). For decades, these groups have worked with racists, anti-Semites, and white nationalists to promote dubious studies and misleading research that supposedly show why we need to have fewer immigrants in the United States. Their work is so outrageous that both FAIR and CIS have been listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
For a long time, these groups were more or less marginalized to the Fox News crowd. But Donald Trump loves these groups, the misleading information they provide him, and the people who are aligned with them. Trump has cited their data and put it into his ads, while CIS is now going to meetings in his Administration. Jeff Sessions, the Tanton network’s favorite member of Congress, is now Trump’s Attorney General. Steve Bannon, one of Trump’s top advisers, is a white nationalist who used to run right-wing site Breitbart and frequently reports on CIS’ research and findings. And two veterans of FAIR and CIS have been hired for DHS positions in the Trump Administration.
In short, Trump is guided by white nationalists who believe in decades-old white nationalist agenda. And in his mass deportation of immigrants, he is trying to make this agenda a reality.
For more on the Tanton Network, see:
The best way to stand with immigrants under attack by the Trump Administration is to get involved locally.
There are hundreds of local immigrant rights organizations across the country and they need your support now more than ever. Use this resource to find an immigrant rights organization near you.
In addition to getting involved locally, America’s Voice sends out important digital actions letting immigration advocates know how they can make a difference. You can take action with America’s Voice by visiting our Take Action page.
Here are some groups that help immigrants:
|AFL-CIO||National Center for Lesbian Rights|
|AFSCME||National Council of La Raza|
|Alliance for Citizenship||National Day Laborer Organizing Network|
|America’s Voice||National Education Association|
|America’s Voice Education Fund||National Employment Law Project|
|American Civil Liberties Union||National Gay and Lesbian Task Force|
|American Immigration Council||National Immigration Forum|
|American Immigration Lawyers Association||National Immigration Law Center|
|Asian American Justice Center||National Korean American Service and Education Consortium|
|Border Network for Human Rights||National Latina Institute on Reproductive Health|
|Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance||New American Leaders Project|
|Institute for Asian Pacific American Leadership & Advancement||OneAmerica|
|CASA de Maryland||PCUN/CAUSA|
|Center for American Progress||PICO Network|
|Center for Community Change||Planned Parenthood Federation of America|
|Campaign for Community Change||Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund|
|CHIRLA||Rights Working Group|
|Church World Service||Service Employees International Union|
|CREDO||South Asian Americans Leading Together|
|Farmworker Justice||Southern Poverty Law Center|
|Gamaliel||The Black Institute|
|Generational Alliance||United Farm Workers|
|Immigration Equality||United Food and Commercial Workers|
|Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights||United We Dream|
|Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service||US Action|
Still have a question not covered on this page? Email us at info [at] americasvoice.org.