Immigrating the Legal Way. Part 6 of Welcoming the Stranger Series

An understanding of the actual waits and costs implied when we suggest that immigrants wait their turn and immigrate the legal way is helpful. It is equally important to acknowledge, though, that many (probably most) of the people who immigrate illegally to the United States did not even have the option to get in line, because they have no qualifying family member who is a US citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident. – Soerens and Yang (2018), “Immigrating the Legal Way: Our Immigration System Today,” Chapter 4 in Welcoming the Stranger, p. 79.

Chapter 4 Summary

Chapter 4 describes the types of legal status an immigrant can hold, and gives a sense of the choices one finds before them when confronted with the need to come to the US. Chapter 4 is very important, and is mandatory if one wants to contribute intelligently to any discussion of immigration and immigration policy. These statuses and choices are frequently misunderstood, so I’ll err on the side of presenting more of what’s in the book in this post than normal. This post will be long, so you might consider the next two paragraphs after the key questions the tl;dr version. Of course, I’m including my own reflections so you can assume that the following opinions, mis-statements, or mis-understandings of facts are my own and not those of the authors of Welcoming the Stranger. 😉

Key Discussion Questions

  1. Many say that undocumented immigrants should just “wait in line.” How does this chapter shed light on this misconception? How has your understanding of the immigration system changed?
  2. In your opinion, what role does the US economy have on illegal immigration?

Why Can’t Immigrants Just Get in Line?

This chapter starts out by asserting that one of the greatest points of confusion for many native-born US citizens is why anyone would want to come here “illegally.” I’d say this is high on the list for one of the biggest stumbling blocks for those who understand why people migrate to the US, yet believe we are a nation of laws whose immigration policies must be governed accordingly. Most Americans, as discussed in Chapter 2, are used to policies, procedures, processes, etc. that work. Most public features of American life do not depend on things like wealth or social class, able-bodied status, race, gender, religion, or country of origin. In fact, it is often illegal to discriminate on the basis of these factors and others. Our systems are designed for inclusivity, not exclusivity. Native born Americans are used to “trusting” the system. We generally assume that when something needs to be done, there is an appropriate place or authority to turn to. When we apply for things, generally, our applications go where they need to go, are evaluated by the intended audience, are judged on their merits, and have processes of meaningful appeal if the decision did not seem transparent enough. We know this is the case because when the transparency requirement is not met in American life, it becomes a major point of public discussion. Generally, for American citizens, the machinery of government can be assumed to work in the background of our lives except in cases of injustice or incompetence. Writing this as an African-American male, I understand this is a gross and in some ways coarse over-simplification of the true state of things for many American citizensnot just Black onesbut bear with me as I think this generalization is fair enough for this conversation.

Unfortunately, our immigration system does not seem to work like this at all. As we will see momentarily, there are often no processes or procedures in place for normal, middle-class working families who find themselves needing to come to the US. The situation is much worse for those who are poor. The procedures can be assumed to not work for many immigrants. While transparent, it can seem as if our immigration policies are designed for exclusivity, not for inclusivity. Furthermore, while native-born Americans are used to “trusting” the system, many immigrants cannot place such trust in the US immigration system. The option of “getting in line” or “taking the legal route” is in many cases no option at all.

Types of Immigration Status

There are four types of immigration statuses one can hold:

  1. Nonimmigrants. This status is held by foreigners admitted to the US on a temporary basis. Usually, these folks entered on a temporary visa as tourists, business travelers, students, or temporary workers. These visa holders must meet the requirements for entry specified in the Immigration and Nationality Act, and must demonstrate that they are unlikely to overstay their visa. For countries whose borders are not in close geographic proximity to the US, this is the overwhelmingly most likely way their citizens would enter the US.
  2. Lawful Permanent Residents. Lawful Permanent Residents possess a green card that identifies them as having been legally admitted to live permanently in the US. They have the right to live and work in the US, and their status does not expire. They have the right to petition for certain family members to immigrate to the US, although there are strict preferences and waiting periods in place for these types of visas to become available.
    • Refugees and Asylees. While individuals arriving in the US with refugee or asylee status are nonimmigrants, they are almost always able to adjust to Lawful Permanent Resident status. One can think of refugee/asylee as an interim category. There are very stringent definitions of “refugee” and “asylee,” and these categories of immigrants are subject to rigorous security screening. Soerens and Yang quote the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in estimating that there are approximately 22.5 million refugees in the world. In the United States, we have recently (i.e., since George W. Bush and Barack Obama) had refugee ceilings between 70,000 and 85,000 per year. The Trump administration set this ceiling at 45,000 for 2018, and are considering a ceiling less than half of this number for 2019. As Christians, we need to carefully think about what a refugee resettlement policy that reflects God’s personality might look like in the light of such pronounced global need.
  3. US Citizen. US citizens include naturalized citizens, those who are born in the US, or those who are born to one or both parents who are US citizens. Unlike Lawful Permanent Residents, citizens have the rights to vote, run for office, travel on a US passport, apply for certain jobs, and petition for certain family members to immigrate.
  4. Undocumented. Generally, one who does not fit into the three prior categories is undocumented and is vulnerable to deportation. I would go so far as to say that many in this category could also be described as “stateless,” such as the childhood arrivals who have neither citizenship in the US nor legal status in their parents’ country of origin. We are very used to hearing the term “stateless” applied to extreme situations like that of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, but I do not think it is an overstatement to apply that term to many undocumented residents of the US.
    • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA provided a temporary mechanism for those who arrived as children (of course, with certain age requirements and other qualifications) to obtain special status, renewable, in two year periods that permitted many young undocumented residents many of the privileges of lawful permanent residents such as work authorization, the ability to obtain social security numbers, or apply for financial aid. In September 2017, the Trump administration has declined to renew this program, and many DACA recipients will revert to undocumented status.

Pathways to Legal Status

The information presented in the book concerning pathways to legal status is somewhat complex, so I won’t venture to re-state all of it here. The revised version of the book has a neat section called “Waiting your turn in line” that does a nice job of making tangible some of the “lines” a prospective immigrant can stand in. In general, there are three paths to legal status in the US that bestow a status somewhat similar, if not equal to, Lawful Permanent Resident:

  1. Employment-based immigration. Employers may petition for immigrants to come as permanent resident workers or temporary workers, filling positions within their companies, with the intention of meeting the labor demands of the US economy. In my opinion, the US economic need for employment based immigration is the most important motivating factorand also the most controversialfor comprehensive immigration reform. Since the economic supply and demand provides much of the engine for immigration, comprehensive immigration reform is needed if we are going to provide protections for both US citizens and temporary workers. It is my strong opinion that our greatest moral failing as a country is failing to reform employment-based immigration while we continue to benefit from the cultural contributions, workand taxesof the undocumented without adjusting their status to provide them a legitimate voice. Let me just say there is a reason that business interests are opposed to more stringent restrictions on illegal immigration while simultaneously being unable to help to pass several bipartisan proposals for comprehensive immigration reform through the House and Senate.
  2. Family-based immigration. Most immigrants who come to reside permanently in the US immigrate on the basis of family relationships, with the intention of reuniting families. Although a person may have a qualifying relationship with a US citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident, that person must still wait for a visa to be available. Visas are available immediately, without limit, for certain relatives of US citizenspending processing timesuch as spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents. The situation for other family-based petitions is more challenging and there are several preferences in place:
    1. The first preference is for unmarried adult children of US citizens. The wait time for most in this category is 7 years, although for immigrants from Philippines and Mexico the wait time is 11 and 21+ years, respectively.
    2. The second preference is for spouses and children of Lawful Permanent Residents. For spouse or children under 21, the wait time is about 2 years. For unmarried adult children, the wait time is 7 years, except for Mexicans or Filipinos whose wait times are again 21+ and 11+ years.
    3. The third preference is for married children of US citizens, with a wait time for 12+ years for most countries, and 21+ and 23+ for Mexicans and Filipinos.
    4. The fourth preference is for brothers and sisters of US citizens. For most countries, siblings’ wait times are 13+ years, while 20+ and 23+ for Mexicans and Filipinos.

When considering the wait times and financial burdens of legal pathways to Lawful Permanent Residency for those with family relationships of US Citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents, it is no wonder that many take the risks of undocumented status in order to reunite with their families.


Perhaps it is appropriate to close this post with a quote from Soerens and Yang (p.84):

That immigrants should wait their turn and immigrate the legal way sounds entirely reasonable, but the realities of our present immigration system complicate this truism. The immigration system, many would agree, is broken. Just how we fix this broken system, though, is a question of heated controversyin Washington, DC, and even in our churches. As Christians, our response to these challenging issues should be informed by Scripture, which guides us toward how God would have us think about immigration policy and about immigrants themselves.

Peace and Blessings,

Editor’s note: Pray for Royce’s training as he prepares to run the Baltimore Half Marathon in support of World Relief. Stay tuned for updates. Go Royce!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Royce Francis

Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).

More Posts


  • Kevin Birth commented on September 4, 2018 Reply

    You forgot the EB-5 program–a means by which rich foreigners can make loans to “invest” in low income or rural areas and obtain a visa as a reward. On the surface it sounds like a good idea, but in reality it is bringing in organized crime and driving up housing costs as these “investments” become property grabs and heat up the market. Check out this story from Forbes:

    royce commented on September 4, 2018 Reply

    Kevin, thank you for this addition. I will look back in the book to see if I overlooked this program in Soerens and Yang. It is another way to gain legal status that is out of reach for the vast majority of people seeking to enter and stay in the US, but it is an important and controversial program. Thank you very much for bringing this oversight to my attention. RAF

    Lucine francis commented on September 4, 2018 Reply

    It should be noted that the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is a huge proponent of DACA and have fought Trump to continue this much needed program.

      royce commented on September 4, 2018 Reply

      Hello Lucine, I think this is a good point and I apologize for not addressing DACA. Here is a short overview of my impromptu thoughts. DACA is difficult and controversial since, technically, the current DACA recipients are not in the country legally, the executive order and the prior congressional options cover only a subset of childhood arrivals, and the bipartisan solutions proposed in order to permanently adjust their status have come up against roadblocks, dating back to at least the George W Bush administration, in Congress. This program, both the executive order and the legislative proposals, has satisfied no one on any side of this issue. Keep in mind that although Obama signed the executive order giving work authorization to some children brought here by their parents, that status was temporary by design as Obama believed Congress should act. So while NAACP is opposing the current administration, I think what all of us really need to do is pray that Congress would act in order to adjust the status of those who arrived as minors. Congress is the only way a permanent solution can be brought to bear.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.