In this U.S. presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the subject of ‘immigration reform’ is often raised. I feel that what they should really be talking about is ‘immigration rights” and how one qualifies for them. You see, immigration is an issue I have come to know a lot about in recent years…

I am an American who can trace my lineage back to the first settlers who came over on the Mayflower. Other than the Native Americans who were here before us, I am as pure an American one can find. My husband, on the other hand, is from India, and to make things even more complicated, we met while we both were living in a third country, the Dominican Republic. I have therefore experience the immigration issue in three different countries.

When we decided as a family that the United States would be the best place for us to live, we began our journey to obtain an immigrant visa, a process which has taken nearly 3 years and at this moment of writing this post is still not resolved. It will be resolved soon, however, for better or worse, when we go to our second, and final visa interview later this month.

But this post isn’t about my journey. If you want to read more about that, visit my personal blog, Amor y Sabor, where I’ve written about our journey from the beginning. Instead, I want to talk about the larger issue of immigration and the three main categories immigrants fall into.

Illegal Immigrants
When the candidates talk about immigration, this is really the only category that they refer to — the ongoing stream of illegal immigrants that cross U.S. borders. The issues that are discussed are:

  • border control
  • grounds for deportation
  • path to citizenship for illegals and/or children

In order to affect the stream of immigrants, we first need to address the demand for their labor. Our farms depend on illegal immigrants because they are the only ones who will do the hard labor for the pay offered. Same with our housecleaning, childcare, landscaping, construction… there are many jobs that economically are tied to illegal immigrants and until that economic equation is address, there will continue to be a demand for these workers and they will come…

Now it is easy to say ‘no, no, we just need to close our borders’ but I have seen the exact same economic equation in the Dominican Republic with Haitian illegals and I am sure there are many other examples across the world.

Refugee Immigrants
This is the second category of immigrants that come to the United States — immigrants that come because of natural disaster (like the earthquake in Haiti) or political asylum (like in Serbia). In this situation the country in question is in the spotlight and the United States love to play the hero so we open our borders to this group of people and visas are fast-tracked. This means that background checks often are not completed. And, these refugees often receive additional assistance when they come to the United States in terms of Social Services so they can get started in their new home.

Legal Immigrants
This is the group that is virtually ignored in the rhetoric and they are people who go through the legal process to immigrate to the United States. The reasons are primarily familial — marriage or children — but it can also be for work. For these immigrants, the process is lengthy — often taking years, expensive — totaling in the thousands, and complex. The background check is thorough, the evidence required is extensive and the immigrant is not entitled to any Social Services in the United States.

My immigration experience falls in this category and I can speak first hand on how incredibly long, expensive and frustrating process it is. Which brings me to the concept of immigration rights.

Currently, there is no such thing as immigration rights. No one has the right to immigrate to the United States. There are situations which are more favorable to be able to immigrate but it is never guaranteed. There is a misconception that there is such a thing has immigration rights. More times than I can count people have said to me in disbelief “but you are married, doesn’t your husband have the right to come to the United States??” The truth is that only American born citizens, of American citizen parents have that right. My two children were born overseas and I had to ‘petition’ for them to be granted American citizenship. The process for each child took several months and required a stack of evidence that they were in fact my children and that I was a full-fledged American citzen.

My husband on the other hand, was not so lucky. When we first filed for a visa we were denied — the consulate simply did not ‘believe’ that we were a couple. This was because we did not fit the expectation of what they thought a couple should be be. You see, within this category of ‘legal immigrants’, couples like us are the minority. The norm are recent immigrants who once they obtain citizenship then go back to their home country to marry or bring other relatives to the United States. So you have families of a particular nationality petitioning for other families of the same nationality. In our situation, I am American and my husband is from India. To the U.S. immigration system, we come under the most scrutiny.

The irony is that in situation such as ours, where the petitioner is an American who can trace their heritage back generations, there is a clear foothold in the United States, one which can provide a level of guarantee, a leverage of sorts for the U.S. to insure that the immigrant doesn’t abuse its benefits. But when you have the couples that consist of an immigrant who recent received citizenship and then an applicant who is from that same country, the ties are far greater to the foreign country than to the U.S. so if there is any wrong doing, or things don’t work out, it is far easier to return to the “home country” even if it is not a desirable option. For me, the United States is my home. I don’t have anywhere to go so if my husband doesn’t get a visa to immigrate, I am in effect, exiled from my own country.

But because immigration is not a right and therefore a subjective decision, there is no simple process for immigrants that are trying to immigrate legally, especially to when it is to unite a family.

My point is this, the immigration “issue” is far greater than just the illegal immigrants crossing the border. The polices as we have it now keep families who pursue immigration legally, apart for years before they can immigrate. I think there should be situations where one does have the ‘right’ to immigrate but not a right that is given lightly. We are one world, one people and in the United States in particular, we are a melting pot of cultures. Why can we not return to the original beliefs that found this country, accepting immigrants in a positive way when it comes to families while addressing the economic and political situations that bring others here?

The skyscrapers that dot the skyline of New York City, the railroads that connect the continent, the industrial might of modern America–all of these are the work of immigrants and of the descendants of immigrants. All of these are monuments to the strong hearts and hands of men and women from all nations, all races, and all religions who came here and became proud Americans. The walls of this museum, even if they were a hundred times this size, could not begin to house the full story of their contributions–yet it is a story that must and shall be told, especially now, as we complete our second century as a nation and prepare to celebrate our Bicentennial.

America has often been called a melting pot, perhaps because it has forged the cultures and traditions of many lands into a strong new alloy–an American alloy. But let us never forget that one of the finest things about our country is that it does not force its people into a narrow mold of conformity. America is a rich mosaic of many cultures and traditions, strong in its diversity. Each new immigrant has added another piece to the mosaic of American life–a fresh perspective and a fresh appreciation of what it means to be an American.

Richard Nixon: “Statement About the Dedication of the American Museum of Immigration,” September 26, 1972.


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