Written By Sylvia Anokam, Mosaic Intern for Black and Africana Student Engagement in Campus Life.
Frequently during discussions relating to undocumented immigrants, you are likely to encounter the argument “Why can’t they come here legally?” People who ask this don't understand the complexity of the legal process. In reality, the visa process is a prolonged, expensive, selective, exclusionary, and limited process. The quantity of visas for those seeking Permanent Residency in the United States is limited. Furthermore, family-based visas are limited to what the United States considers “immediate relatives” for Permanent Residents (i.e. spouses, children). This definition is slightly expanded for U.S. Citizens to include siblings or parents. This definition of immediate family excludes grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins which in many non-western, collectivist societies are still considered part of the nuclear family.
Work-based visas are exclusive to those who have exceptional talents in fields such as the sciences, medicine, arts, education, business, athletics, or to those have an advanced degree. That leaves a large sector of the international population ineligible to enter the country. This inadvertently also causes what is seen as “brain drain” in other countries, but that is something for another conversation. But if you are one of those who fit the privileged criteria above to receive either of those visas, you will still encounter socioeconomic difficulties during the application process.
To begin, the application fee alone can cost between $160 to $500 per application (U.S Department of State, 2018). You will need to contract an immigration attorney to assist with the paperwork. In addition, you must visit multiple doctors to receive all of the extensive required examinations and vaccinations (e.g. Mumps, Measles, Rubella, Polio, Tetanus and diphtheria, Pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib), Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Rotavirus, Meningococcal disease, Varicella, Pneumococcal disease, Seasonal influenza) (cdc.gov, 2012). Keep in mind that all these have their own associated medical and legal costs and that this is before your application process can be initiated!
(image from http://dreamacttexas.blogspot.com, 2008)
The process requires time flexibility as there are many appointments and interviews. You will need to make time in your schedule for your legal representative, the embassy specific to your country of origin, and US Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) to name a few. However, even after going through this entire process, you may still not be granted a visa. If you are lucky enough to get the green light, there still will be a wait period that ranges from five to fifteen years depending on your national origin. Additionally, just because you may qualify for this process does not mean everyone in your family also will be granted their visas. The wait time varies because the United States prioritizes those who are coming from countries with the least amount of immigrants, typically other Western or industrialized countries. On the other hand, this means that those who are coming from the global South are less likely to qualify or are likely to wait longer.
Imagine an average family composed of four member going through this process—it can cost between $1,740-$3,100 (not taking into account the exchange rate if done outside the US) just for the application and medical costs. And that is if you’re lucky enough to have a smooth, hassle-free process. Mistakes occur which may require “re-do’s” of applications, interviews as well as additional legal fees. Local non-profits like CASA offer low interest loans for those applying but some immigrants don't even have families who are citizens to file for them. Or, they don't have the educational qualifications or skills required to be eligible to file for work visas. For those living abroad, economic disparities may make these costs even harder to afford. Looking back at where most immigrants in the United States come from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and China, the average annual income is $19,900, $8,100, $8,900,$5,600, $16,700, respectively (CIA World Factbook, 2018). It does not take advanced math skills to know that the average families in these countries do not have the money to afford these fees.
There are people that have multiple family members living in the United States and may ask for financial support, but typically immigrants living in the United States already struggle financially. This can be a financial burden too large for most people to do it “the legal way.” So we encourage those who tell immigrants to “get in line” to understand that it is not easy for those like me and my relatives.