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Why undocumented immigrants don’t get in line and do things the right way

Unauthorized: Portraits of Latino… by Marisol Clark-Ibáñez and Richelle S. Swan, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, US $38.00, Pp 306, June 2019, ISBN 978-1442273825

Unauthorized or undocumented immigrants have been in the news since Donald Trump joined the presidential race in about 2016. By entering the United States illegally, the undocumented immigrants certainly break the law and were sent back to their countries of origin when caught. This has been happening for a long time. In Unauthorized, Marisol Clark-Ibáñez and Richelle S. Swan argue that the arrival of Donald Trump on the political scene changed a misdemeanor into crime in the public discourse. This led to horrible violations of human rights that were reported prominently by the US media. The authors have approached the subject of undocumented or unauthorized Latino immigration from a human rights perspective. In other words, all human beings including undocumented or unauthorized Latinx immigrants should be treated with respect and dignity.

Clark-Ibáñez and Swan say, in the United States, one-fourth of immigrants are unauthorized who make up a total of 3.5 percent of the country’s total population. The majority of undocumented immigrants (66 percent) in the United States have lived here for more than ten years and a minority have lived here for less than five years. The number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has fallen to the lowest level since 2004 — the peak was in 2012 with 12.6 million. The majority of undocumented immigrants to the United States come from Mexico. Of the estimated 11.3 million undocumented people in the United States, 67 percent or 7.5 million come from Mexico, followed by El Salvador 6 percent, Guatemala 5 percent and Honduras 3 percent. Immigration from Mexico has sharply decreased while the undocumented immigration from Central America is growing. Two-thirds of undocumented immigrants have entered the country with authorization but overstayed their permission. In other words, the majority of undocumented did not cross the border illegally. This speaks to undocumented immigrants who began the process with some type of status, such as visitor, work, or student visas, but for a variety of reasons stayed in the United States beyond their designated time.

Something we often hear about undocumented immigrants is: “why can’t they get in line and do things the right way?” Clark-Ibáñez and Swan argue that most undocumented immigrants would like to formalize their status to reduce the chances of deportation. However, most are not eligible for relief. It is also important to remember that the law currently states that it is only a misdemeanor offense to enter the United States without inspection from an immigration officer. Immigration law is an administrative court — not a criminal court. However, under the Trump Administration, undocumented immigrants have become criminalized.

Clark-Ibáñez and Swan argue that the policy for family reunification process unjust. There is a long line for the petitions submitted. In 2015, there were 4.5 million people waiting for a family-based permanent resident card. For most countries, unmarried children must wait more than five years and siblings of US citizens must wait more than 10 years. People from countries with high levels of immigration to the United States must wait longer. This is not enough. All petitioners must be above the poverty line and have demonstrated the ability to support the family member they are bringing to the United States. For this reason, contrary to popular belief, most US-born children do not anchor parents by providing automatic pathways to citizenship. The US Constitution grants citizenship to all individual born in the United States, a citizen child must wait until he or she is twenty-one years old to petition for their parents.

Clark-Ibáñez and Swan say that, previously, the fastest “line” to citizenship was an opportunity created through the Simpson-Mazzoli Act signed into law by President Reagan in 1986. Among other things, it gave amnesty and pathway to citizenship to three million undocumented immigrants who had been in the country for at least five years. Many activists and scholars believe that this is the most humane and fiscally responsible way to deal with undocumented immigration.

Unauthorized is a necessary addition to the growing literature on undocumented immigrants. Marisol Clark-Ibáñez and Richelle S. Swan must be commended for this myth-busting work that provides new insights and perspectives. Clark-Ibáñez and Swan explore the challenges undocumented immigrants face and we can alleviate their pain from a human rights perspective. Unauthorized is a rigorously researched work that will not only change the way we debate about undocumented immigrant but also think about them. It is a must-read for American immigration policymakers.

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