These days it seems that no debate on immigration reform is complete without politicians throwing around references to “the line”. One side promises that immigrants would “go to the back of the line” before receiving a benefit from a reform, and the other side admonishes the immigrants for not “getting in line” from the beginning. And so Americans tend to imagine that the U.S. immigration system involves people from around the world signing up and being given green cards on a first-come, first-served basis. But of course that’s not really how it works. So what is this often referenced “line”? How long is it? And most importantly, how can someone actually get into line?
Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. immigration system is not one single process that all immigrants go through. It is actually a patchwork system with hundreds of different visas and programs in existence. Each option has different requirements and benefits. Some options are temporary and can only be used for a specific purpose like coming for vacation or studying at a university. Some options provide work authorization and some do not. And different options have differing standards regarding whether requirements can ever be waived or forgiven.
Being a “lawful permanent resident”, aka having a green card, is a status that allows immigrants to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely as long as the immigrant follows certain rules including avoiding criminal activity. There are different routes to becoming a permanent resident, but most involve a petition submitted by a family member or an employer. Some of these petition categories have statutory annual caps. For example, only 65,000 siblings of United States citizens can become permanent residents each year. Many more applications are submitted each year than there are green cards available, so the excess applications accumulate in a waiting list that is also referred to as a line.
In addition, no single country can receive more than 7% of the total annual cap. That means that large countries with high immigration rates to the U.S., such as India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines have significantly bigger backlogs than other countries.
So what kinds of wait times are we talking about? Each month the Department of States publishes the “Visa Bulletin”, which lists a date for each category; anyone who applied prior to that date is eligible to continue processing. For example, the August 2015 bulletin shows that U.S. citizens who applied for their siblings in the Philippines prior to January 15, 1992 are now at the front of the line. That’s right –they have been waiting for over 23 years! However, immigrants applying today will wait much longer. Department of State reports indicate the number of applications that are currently in line. Those who crunch the numbers will find that a Mexican sibling of a U.S. citizen who applied this year will have to wait 162 years!
Now that you understand what “the line” is, it certainly makes sense why there is a chorus of “go to the back of the line!” whenever immigration reform is discussed. It would not be fair to allow undocumented immigrants to become residents while other people around the world stay on a 100+ year waiting list. On the other hand, not much would be gained by having an extra 11 million or so people in line, since the line is already longer than a lifetime for some categories. Presumably a reform would involve creating a way for the people in line to come to the United States and obtain residency faster than any undocumented immigrants would.
The other important thing to note about having undocumented immigrants “go to the back of the line” is that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants have no way to get in line at all, so they can’t go to the back of the line. This brings us to the other immigration cliché, “they should have gotten in line and done things the right way”.
The only way immigrants can get in line is to qualify for one of the family or employer categories that are legally available. There is no category for “foreigners who want to come to the United States.” So the vast majority of undocumented immigrants could not have gotten in line anyway, even if they’d tried. And of course, if they had been fortunate enough to qualify for a category, they probably would spend a lifetime waiting. So “they should have gotten in line” would be better stated “I do not believe it is morally acceptable for a person to violate the laws of another country for any reason (even safety, escaping poverty, protecting children, etc.)” And that certainly is a valid position for a reasonable policy debate. However, “they should have gotten in line” is a bit of a red herring.
Immigration policy is complicated, which is one of the reasons it has been so tough to pass a reform. Hopefully understanding the legal basis of “the line” and its role in the immigration process will help you to feel better informed as the topic of immigration heats up over the next election cycle. At the very least, it will help you understand just one of the reasons behind another of the most common immigration reform clichés: “Our immigration system is broken.