Focusing on the undocumented hurts immigration debate

Jan 16, 2014 by Lori Sonken

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner recently signaled that the House may follow the Senate's lead and move immigration legislation. But many policymakers are falling into the "illegality trap" – a phrase coined by Michael Jones-Correa, professor of government, to describe when the debate centers on what to do with undocumented migrants.

In "The Illegality Trap: The Politics of Immigration and the Lens of Illegality," published in the summer 2013 in Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Jones-Correa warns that the emphasis on undocumented or illegal migrants leads to more enforcement, legislative gridlock and constitutional conflicts between federal, state and local laws without providing mechanisms to encourage immigrant integration into U.S. society.

"The focus on illegality ignores much of our history. Until the 1980s, illegality was a changeable concept. People may have entered the U.S. without documents, but they were able to regularize their status," says Jones-Correa, who co-wrote the article with Els de Graauw of Baruch College.

There are approximately 11.1 million undocumented people in the United States – about 25 percent of the foreign-born resident population. Usually they have overstayed visas for tourism, study or temporary work, or they entered the country clandestinely. Most come from Mexico (59 percent) or other Latin American countries.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act ended the Bracero program that allowed Mexico and Caribbean nations to send millions of temporary farm workers to the United States. The 1965 statute also place a 20,000-person cap per country on immigration no matter where immigrants came from. Mexico was given the same cap as, say, Albania.

The article explains, "In a few short years, visa availability for migrants from Mexico plummeted from 450,000 annual guest worker visas and an unlimited number of residence visas to just 20,000 visas for permanent residents, with no legal guest worker program."

Jones-Correa supports earned legalization that enables migrants to acquire residency by meeting criteria, such as number of years in the country, having a stable job, paying taxes and not having a criminal record.

"Earned legalization is not completely absent from our system," Jones-Correa says, noting that those who are in the military can gain citizenship. Pending legislation, such as the DREAM Act, provides a path to legal residency for immigrants who came to the U.S. before they were 16, have lived in the U.S. for the past five years, and have completed two years of college or military service.

Jones-Correa predicts that there will be efforts to create paths to citizenship for those who came to the U.S. as youths and for highly skilled workers that the U.S. business community supports. There also may be provisions to allow agricultural workers to stay in the United States temporarily.

"The unresolved question is what happens to everyone else," he says, noting that the DREAM Act would affect, at most, about 2.1 million people. His work suggests a regular process to allow qualified unauthorized residents to gain access to permanent residency is needed.

Born in Venezuela, Jones-Correa's mother is Ecuadorean and his father is a Foreign Service officer. The author of several books and dozens of book chapters and articles, he was the team leader for Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences' theme project, Immigration: Settlement, Integration and Membership 2010-13.

Jones-Correa – who has spent his life asking how people become citizens in a democracy and how we make decisions about who belongs and who doesn't – is enjoying his ringside seat watching the immigration debate.

"As a social scientist, I get to see this process unfolding as it is happening," he says.

Explore further: Immigration reform key to protect women from violence

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Immigration reform key to protect women from violence

Dec 17, 2013

Comprehensive immigration reform that includes a clear path to citizenship could drastically reduce violence against women and girls in the United States and across the world, according to a new policy brief released today ...

High-skilled visa requests likely to exceed supply

Apr 02, 2013

The U.S. Homeland Security Department expects applications for high-skilled immigration visas to outpace the available supply in a matter of days, one of the fastest runs on the much-sought-after work permits in years and ...

Immigration law not created equally according to study

Jun 26, 2013

Immigrant women who go through the legalization process are not treated equitably, according to a new study, "Gendered Paths to Legal Status: The Case of Latin American Immigrants in Phoenix, Arizona."

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

8 hours ago

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...