This is, understandably, one of the most commonly asked questions when we’re talking about the number of undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. Many wonder why these individuals didn’t come legally in the first place. Why sneak across the border or overstay your visa when you can simply apply for entry? This leads to the second phrase often uttered, “Well they should go home and get in line.”
So why don’t they come here with papers in the first place?
The main reason is that what sounds simple (apply for a visa and come) is actually incredibly complex, extremely exclusive, and very, very expensive. Let’s quickly unpack this.
First of all, everyone who wants to come and live in the United States must have a qualifying reason to come. Either they have an employer willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get them here, or they have a qualifying family member. There are other ways to come here temporarily (students, exchange, tourist, short-term business), but they all require you to prove that you do intend to return to your home country. Let’s look at each of these independently.
For an employment visa, you have to have a job offer in the United States and your employer has to prove that they listed the job in the United States and that no one here is equally skilled enough to do the job. This is a process that takes years and tens of thousands of dollars to complete, and unless you are extremely educated or extremely specialized in your skill-set, most employers simply can’t do this.
So, let’s look at family-based immigration (what some have maliciously termed chain migration). To come this way you must have a qualifying relative. So you must have a US Citizen spouse, parent, sibling, or child over 21 years old, or a legal permanent resident spouse or parent (as long as you aren’t married). If you have such a relationship you file with USCIS to prove the relationship, then when they approve you apply for a visa at your consulate.
If you are coming to join your US Citizen spouse, child, or parent (if you are underage) then you don’t have to wait for a visa to become available. Everyone else is subject to a preference category. Each year there are a set number of visas allowed globally for each type of relationship and once those are used, all others are put on a waiting list. Currently that wait can range anywhere from five to twenty-seven years. For instance, a US Citizen trying to bring their 40 year-old Filipino sister may be able to bring her here when she is 67 years old.
Outside of these two methods of immigration, there is simply no reliable method to get here. Whether you are fleeing violence and persecution or simply trying to provide for you family, there is no avenue to get your family to the United States. Sure, there is refugee status, but you have to be in a UN designated camp, and you may wait 10, 15, or 20 years for your chance to try to come to the United States. Yes, there is asylum status, but you have to be physically in the United States to ask for asylum, and if you make it and can make that claim, almost 60% are denied.
People don’t cross jungles, rivers, and deserts to get here because they are lazy and don’t want to do the paperwork. They do it because there is no other avenue to get here. Such a journey is risky, leaving them prone to extortion, rape, and death. No one takes such a journey to get around a filing fee. They do it because staying at home is an even grimmer prospect.
In short, they don’t come here legally because there is no avenue for them to do so. They don’t get in line because the line doesn’t exist, and they come here without documents because it is their only hope for survival.