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“Why can’t undocumented immigrants just “get legal?” And Other Frequent Questions About Immigration Reform

What is immigration reform?

We know how to fix our out-dated immigration system — it’s simply a matter of building the political will in Congress to pass the law.

Comprehensive immigration reform includes:

  • A direct, fair, and inclusive road to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. without papers
  • Channels for future legal immigration that are flexible and functional
  • Robust protections and guaranteed rights for all workers
  • Enforcement that is targeted and fair, and respects immigrants’ rights
  • Full and equal rights for all immigrants

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.

At the federal level, we can work to ensure that the Obama Administration (DHS) implements policies that:

  • De-prioritize non-criminal deportations
  • Grant Deferred Action to undocumented immigrants with strong ties to the US
  • Allow immigrants with Deferred Action to apply for work permits and driver’s license
  • Reunite families separated by wrongful deportations
  • End the detention of families

At the local level we can also work to ensure states and municipalities implement policies that:

  • Grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses and IDs
  • Allow undocumented students to apply for in-state tuition
  • Protect all residents from racial profiling, including immigrants
  • Protect the rights of all workers
  • Build strong relationships between police and the immigrant community

What is an undocumented immigrant?

Currently, there are approximately 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. These 11.5 million people are spouses, parents, children, siblings, and cousins who don’t have the correct paperwork to be present in the US.

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.

Who is working to fix our broken immigration system?

Polling shows that most Americans believe families should work together, that hard work should be rewarded, and that a path to citizenship should be open to immigrants of good character who embrace American values.

The U.S. public supports pro-immigrant reform; in a study of 2,002 adults, Pew Research Center found that:

  • 72% of Americans believe that the 11.5 million should be allowed to remain in the country.
  • 42% of that group argue that the undocumented immigrants should be allowed to apply for citizenship
  • 26% support permanent residency options.

The power of the movement to fix our broken immigration policies is constantly growing.

  • 56% of Republicans interviewed support legalization of the undocumented
  • 80% of Democrats and 76% of Independents support some form of legalization of the undocumented
  • Hispanics and millennials are the cohorts most supportive of a pathway to legalization.

A large coalition of progressive, faith-based, labor, civil rights, and grassroots groups, networks, law enforcement officials, business organizations, and leaders support comprehensive immigration reform.

Noted groups include:

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
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 YWCA

How are U.S. citizens affected by the current immigration system?

America works best when we all do our part and work together as one nation, but our broken immigration policies are holding us back.

  • $37 million: daily loss in tax revenue for each day the immigration system remains unfixed
  • $17.7 billion: overall lost revenue as of October 2014 due to the current system
  • $20,000: cost per single deportation for taxpayers
  • $2.6 trillion: cost of a self-deportation policy in GDP over 10 years

A pathway to citizenship would greatly benefit U.S. citizens and the government, in contrast.

  • $568 billion: revenue increase in GDP by 2022 provided by a route to citizenship
  • 820,000: new jobs created for all U.S. workers by 2022 provided by a route to citizenship

Morally, our outdated immigration policies are also a major stain on our national values.

Deportation and detainment tear apart U.S. families:

The threat of deportation and reality of forced separation leads to emotional and financial chaos:

  • Children placed in foster care
  • Single parents left struggling to make ends meet
  • Increased food insecurity
  • Higher poverty levels
  • Constant fear of separation
  • Mistrust of police
  • Mental health issues: fear, anxiety, depression, withdrawal, inability to focus and acting out

Why can’t undocumented immigrants just “get legal?”

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 the U.S. border, but if they return to their country and apply at a U.S. Embassy, as required by the law, they are ineligible to return.

  • The U.S. bars any non-citizen who leaves the U.S. after more than 180 days of unlawful presence for 3 years.
  • If the noncitizen departs after more than a year the restriction increases to 10 years.
  • The bans apply even if the noncitizen is married to a U.S. citizen or lawful resident or has U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children.
  • Undocumented immigrants can ask the government to waive the bans, if they prove that their inadmissibility causes “extreme hardship” to a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident spouse or parent

A permanent ban from the United States is applied to anyone who:

  • Is deported from the U.S. and then returned or tried to enter unlawfully; or
  • Lived in the U.S. without papers for over a year, left on their own, and then returned or tried to enter unlawfully

After 10 years, the aspiring immigrant may request permission to return from the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Why do some immigrants come here “illegally?”

Only 140,000 reserved green cards are given out annually for immigrant workers — and, of those, only 5,000 are given to immigrants working in a job that does not necessitate a college degree.

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.

The government limits the number of green cards available for a particular “category” and/or country. For example, if you are an adult child of a U.S. citizen, live in Mexico, and are not married, you would have to wait over 20 years to be reunited with your parent in the U.S.

Any aspiring citizen with either a U.S. employer or close U.S. citizen relative willing to sponsor them can technically apply for a green card. However, there are intense specifications for who qualifies for green cards.

How do immigrants become citizens?

The qualifications for U.S. citizenship are even more stringent. An immigrant must possess a green card for a minimum of 5 years, or 3 years if the green card was granted through either a U.S. citizen spouse or the Violence Against Women Act.

Citizenship through Naturalization

To be eligible for citizenship through naturalization, you must:

  • Be at least 18 years old;
  • Be a permanent resident for a certain amount of time
  • 5 years; or 3 years during which time you have been and continue to be married to and living in a marriage relationship with your US citizen husband or wife; or
  • Have honorable service in the US military
  • Be a person of good moral character;
  • Have a basic knowledge of US government;
  • Have a period of continuous residence and physical presence in the US; and
  • Be able to read, write, and speak basic English.

Expectations for this rule:

      • 55 years old & has been a permanent residence for at least 15 years; or
      • 50 years old & has been a permanent residence for at least 20 years; or
      • Has a permanent physical or mental impairment that makes the individual unable to fulfill these requirements

The application for naturalization can be found here, there is a $680 application fee.

Once your application is submitted, you’ll receive a date and address to a local office for fingerprinting. The fingerprint will serve for your background check, which must be approved before your application is processed.

After the fingerprinting, you’ll receive an appointment date and address for an interview with a USCIS officer. This interview will include an overview of your application, and a U.S. civics and English test. Here is a link to help you prepare for the interview.

If you’re approved, there will be a ceremony during which you swear loyalty to the US. At the ceremony, you’ll be given a certificate of naturalization.

For more information, see the USCIS website.

 Who opposes immigration reform?

There are three primary groups that oppose immigration reform:

  • Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)
  • NumbersUSA
  • Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)

John Tanton, an extremist with recorded ties to the white supremacy movement, founded and funded all three of these groups.

Associated member organizations include the Center for the Future American Worker (CFAW), American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF), Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), American Council on Immigration Reform, American Jobs Coalition, and American Engineering Association.

 Which Members of Congress and Senators oppose immigration reform?

Members of Congress notable for their staunch anti-immigrant status include:

Congressman Steve King (R-IA) earned his infamous anti-immigrant reputation first through his comparison of immigrants to dogs and cattle. He submitted an amendment to a 2013 appropriations bill in attempts to end DACA and deport DREAMers. King also spearheaded an appropriations provision meant to impede DOJ’s efforts to defend Obama’s executive actions on immigration

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) theorizes that terrorists send pregnant women to the U.S. to create American hating U.S. citizens, “terror babies,” as he refers to them. He further contends that radical Islamists immigrate to the U.S. successfully by crossing the border with “Hispanic-sounding names.”

Congressman Mo Brooks (R-AL) will “do anything short of shooting” immigrants in order to resolve the issue. While he argues that “anything that is lawful, it needs to be done,” his plans do not seem to include a pathway to legalization or 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) rallies against immigration reform, believing that it would inevitably increase the percentage of Democratic voters.  He 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 furthered that immigrants were transforming America into a “sinking ship.” Barletta serves on the board of FAIR, one of the aforementioned John Tanton anti-immigrant groups.

Congressman Rohrabacher (R-CA) explained to a DREAMer who visited his office to plea for immigration reform that simply put he “hates illegals.”

Members of the Gang of Hate, Senators infamous for their anti-immigration stance, include:

Senator Jefferson Sessions (R-AL) has extremely close ties with the John Tanton network of anti-immigrant groups, CIS, NumbersUSA, and FAIR. In 2009, NumbersUSA notably referred to him as “the No. 1 champion for the American workers on immigration issues.” Senator 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.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) invited four John Tanton network witnesses and Kris Kobach, Mitt Romney’s immigration advisor, to the Senate Judiciary committee hearing on immigration and the 2013 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, instead he “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 the surge in immigration from Central America. The bill would have facilitated the deportation of children fleeing violence in Central America.

David Vitter (R-LA) is a vocal opponent of  the DREAM Act, comprehensive immigration reform, and President Obama’s immigration executive actions. Vitter co-sponsored a resolution to revoke the 14th amendment citizenship rights in 2011. The resolution would have denied American citizenship to babies born on US soil, unless their parents can prove they have the right immigration documents. He also served as a lead sponsor of efforts to restrict the use of discretion in immigration enforcement to target felons, not families. He also is responsible for one of the most virulently anti-Latino and anti-immigrant campaign ads in recent years.

Why not to use the term “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien?”

Referring to an individual as “illegal” is legally inaccurate. Federal immigration law generally declares unlawful unauthorized presence in the US a civil immigration violation – so, while entering the country illegally is classified as a federal misdemeanor, lacking legal immigration status is generally a civil violation.

Between 40-50% of the 11.5 million entered the US legally through a visa obtained from the US government 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:

  • Strip people of their basic rights and dignity
  • Stresses otherness
  • Facilitates discriminatory actions

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.”

What has Congress done to fix our out-dated immigration system?

In short, nothing.

Congress first considered The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in 2001.  The bill came very close to become 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 failed DREAM Act would have provided conditional Resident Status for an aspiring citizen who:

    • Entered the US before 16 years old and lived continuously in the US for at least 5 years
    • Graduated from a US high school or obtained a GED
    • Demonstrates good moral character
    • Passes criminal background checks and reviews
    • After obtaining and holding condition resident status, permanent residency may be granted if the following criteria are satisfied within 6 years
    • Attended an institution of higher learning or serve in the US military for 2 years and if discharged received an honorable discharge
    • Passes another series of background checks
    • Continues to demonstrate good moral character

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:

  • An expansion of family and employment-based immigration categories
  • Increased border security
  • Additional visas/ green cards for students with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees from U.S. institutions
  • $1.5 billion youth jobs program
  • Repeal Diversity Visa Lottery in favor of prospective aspiring citizens who are already in the U.S.
  • New visas for entrepreneurs and a W visa for lower skilled workers

The bill was never taken up in the House of Representatives, despite a related bill, HR 15 having 200 cosponsors. Clearly, the necessary votes were there to pass bipartisan immigration reform, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refused to bring it to the floor.

What has the White House done to fix our out-dated immigration system?

Every president since former President Eisenhower has taken major action on immigration.

Both President Reagan and Bush expanded protection from deportation to family members not originally covered by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.   The 1986 immigration law provided legal status 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 against deportation.  Therefore, in 1987 former President Reagan granted protection from deportation to children of parent(s) 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.

 What is Deferred Action?

Deferred Action is a use of prosecutorial discretion to decline to deport someone who is eligible for deportation. Deferred Action does not provide lawful status.  It is a temporary situation for immigrants that does not lead to a path to citizenship.

 What is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)?

In 2012, President Obama announced he would stop deporting aspiring citizens who met the criteria outlined by the DREAM Act and created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) provides:

  • Exemption from deportation for aspiring citizens who arrived in the U.S. prior to their 16th birthday and before June 2007
  • Access to a renewable, two-year work permit

In November 2014, Obama announced a series of executive actions, some of which expanded the DACA program. This policy expansion is currently on hold because of Republican lawsuit.

Once implemented, expanded DACA will be open to:

  • Any individual who entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and lived in the U.S. continuously since 1/1/2010
  • The period of DACA and work authorization will be increased to 3 years

For more information or to ask leading immigration advocates and lawyers specific questions, please visit:

What is Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA)?

Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), is policy created by the Obama Administration which would grant Deferred Action 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. Deferred Action is not full legal status, but in this case would come with a three-year, renewable work permit and exemption from deportation.

In August 2014, 52% of Americans supported President Obama taking unilateral actions concerning immigration in the continued absence of legislation.

  • Introduced Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA)
  • Parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to request Deferred Action and employment authorization for 3 years
  • If they have continuously lived in the U.S. since 1/1/2010
  • Pass required background checks
  • Expanded use of provisional waivers of unlawful presence to include:\
  • Spouses and children of lawful permanent residents
  • Children of U.S. citizens
  • Policies to modernize, improve, and clarify immigrant and nonimmigrant visa programs

On December 4, 2014, the Texas attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Obama Administration on behalf of 17 states, now 26, challenging the DAPA and DACA expansion programs. On February 12, 2015, Judge Hanen ordered a temporary injunction against the DAPA program and DACA expansion.

For more information or to ask leading immigration advocates and lawyers specific questions, please visit: