Rafael Vega, an Illinois resident featured in a Chicago Tribune article, is a hard worker who drives to several factory jobs. He wants to obtain a driver’s license, but is unable to because he cannot provide a Social Security number on the application. Vega is an illegal immigrant, one of an estimated 300,000 in the state of Illinois.
Vega’s dilemma is an example of how illegal immigrants face predicaments about items most Americans take for granted, but it also reveals a societal divide over how immigrants should be treated. Some states, such as North Carolina and Utah, have made illegal immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses. Proponents of this policy argue that it makes the roads safer for everyone by ensuring that all drivers pass tests and have insurance. Opponents counter that such a policy enables illegal immigrants to fraudulently obtain welfare benefits or to vote, and that it effectively legitimizes the criminal act of illegal immigration. The debate over licensing “shows the split over how to treat illegal immigrants” notes the Chicago Tribune. “Policymakers acknowledge their presence but remain torn over whether to treat them as criminals or as de facto members of society.”
The presence of illegal immigrants in the United States is a product of the gap between the number of people allowed to legally immigrate to the United States and the global demand for U.S. residency. Every year hundreds of thousands of people from around the world attempt to enter and live in the United States. According to statistics kept by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), from 1992 to 1998 825,000 people on average annually immigrated and became legal permanent residents of the United States. Some of them were issued immigrant visas at U.S. consulates abroad; others were temporary U.S. residents who successfully petitioned the government to adjust their status from temporary to permanent.
Obtaining an immigrant visa can be a drawn-out endeavor. United States immigration law contains a complex array of preferences. Favored treatment is given to people who are closely related to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, who are sponsored by an employer or have needed job skills, or who qualify as political refugees. Even for people who qualify within these categories, the wait before an immigrant visa is issued can last ten or fifteen years. The long waiting periods for immigrant visas is a stark reminder of the fact that the United States, despite its reputation as a “nation of immigrants,” does not have an open border policy. America admits more legal immigrants than most other nations, but still sets limits as to who and how many may come.
Despite government efforts to regulate immigration, the United States population includes millions of illegal immigrants who choose to ignore the law and become U.S. residents without official permission. Most come for reasons similar to those motivating legal immigrants—the desire for a better life, a better job, reunifying with relatives, or escaping oppressive conditions at home. Some sneak into the United States from Mexico or Canada without proper documentation. In 1996 alone the Border Patrol made 1.6 million apprehensions of people trying to enter the United States; most arrests occurred along the 1,952 mile U.S./ Mexico border. Other illegal immigrants receive permission to enter the United States on a temporary basis, as tourists or students for example, but then stay beyond the terms of their visas. These account for more than half of illegal immigrants in the United States. Still others may have lost their legal resident status after being convicted of a crime. The INS has estimated that five million illegal immigrants live in the United States. Other estimates, based on 2000 census data, have gone as high as eleven million. This was after Congress in 1986 attempted to “wipe the slate clean” by granting amnesty to most of America’s illegal immigrant population at that time.
Critics of illegal immigration describe the presence of this number of illegal immigrants as an “invasion” that threatens the economic and social future of the United States. “The sovereignty of our nation is at risk from a flood of illegal im- migrants who are usurping the benefits of being American citizens,” writes columnist Ken Hamblin. Hamblin and others argue that the United States has limited resources and abilities to assimilate new immigrants, and that greater efforts should be made to prevent people from entering illegally, deport illegal immigrants who are found here, and punish employers of illegal immigrants. “Cruel as it may seem,” Hamblin argues, “we cannot afford compassion” because that would only encourage more illegal immigration.
However, efforts to deport or otherwise punish or deter illegal immigrants often strike people as too harsh and inhumane. Some people have questioned whether immigration prevention is the real motive behind immigration laws. Lisa Brodyaga, a lawyer for a refugee shelter in Harlingen, Texas and immigrant rights advocate, has criticized recent federal statutes including one requiring illegal immigrants to return to their country of origin and wait ten years before applying for a legal immigrant visa. “Do they [members of Congress] really believe that a person who has grown up here will leave the U.S. and wait 10 years to come back? Do they really believe that these new . . . laws will result in their stated goals [of] keeping people out who have been here illegally?” Brodyaga argues that these actions of Congress instead will create “an almost slave labor force—people who are undocumented, who are living here, and who can never claim their rights.” Efforts should instead be made to include and treat illegal immigrants as full members of American society, Brodyaga and others argue, rather than try to exclude them or drive them away.
The question of whether to treat illegal immigrants as criminals, as victims, or as potential U.S. citizens lies at the heart of many of the debates about illegal immigration. Illegal Immigration: Opposing Viewpoints examines several of these questions in the following chapters: Do Illegal Immigrants Harm America? Are Illegal Immigrants Being Victimized? How Should America Respond to Immigration? Should U.S. Immigration and Refugee Policies Be Changed? The book’s contributors provide a sampling of the sharp divisions of opinion that exist within this country over this important and controversial phenomenon of American life.