Columnist Razvan Sibii: The undocumented immigrants who didn’t cross the border illegally

  • Razvan Sibii

Published: 8/15/2022 4:00:44 PM

I would have a much easier time debating immigration-related issues with the so-called immigration-skeptic crowd if their case wasn’t so often riddled with pernicious hypocrisies. Here’s a few of those that refuse to die, no matter how many explainers the news media puts out:

■We spend billions of dollars to protect ourselves from the undocumented immigrants and the drugs that come from Mexico. But we do precious little to protect the rest of the continent from the incessant flow of American guns and American drug money that kill countless innocent people. (I wrote a column about this here: bit.ly/3bXdXhh).

■Many Americans regard undocumented immigrants as “invaders” who “violate” the border and force us to suffer their presence when practically every owner of a decently sized ranch, factory, construction site and home-care company knows fully well that undocumented workers come to the U.S. because they’re almost assured of getting a job here. We make a show of rounding up and deporting a few of them, but we also make sure that employers risk very little when they hire them. The overall message America sends out is, “Come any way you can. We need you. And tell your cousins we have jobs for them, too.” (My column on this: bit.ly/3zXTdOs).

■ When you hear “undocumented immigrants,” you think of people who sneak across the border from Mexico. In reality, roughly half of all undocumented immigrants (and two-thirds of all recently arrived undocumented immigrants) never crossed the border illegally. Rather, they overstayed their visas. And they are just as likely to be Canadian or Western European as Mexican or Central American. We’ve been conditioned to look at undocumented immigration through a racial lens. Social scientists can tell us what the actual numbers say until they’re blue in the face; we’ll still freak out about the dark-skinned people who seek to replace “us.”

This last misconception is a doozy. Roughly 5 million individuals who are currently undocumented were initially welcomed into the U.S. by an American border guard and never had to deal with human traffickers, deadly desert- or river-crossings, fences or vigilantes. And yet we continue to obsess about the Guatemalan kid who crosses the Southern border illegally trying to get to his aunt in Albuquerque.

I am hereby by no means asking ICE to turn its gaze to the so-called visa overstayers — arresting and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants is always a spectacularly awful idea. But it would be nice if Americans could at least agree on the basic facts of the undocumented immigration dilemma.

While we are regaled daily with accounts from the Southern border, the U.S. government can’t even offer a decent estimate of how many people allow their legal immigration status to lapse every year. That’s in spite of the fact that, unlike with those who cross the border illegally, the government theoretically knows who these people are (having properly identified them when they let them into the country) and how long they’re supposed to be in the U.S. for (having given them a clear duration of stay upon arrival). So then why is Homeland Security clueless as to who is overstaying their visa?

The short answer: Because tracking every incoming person’s legal duration of stay would be immensely costly, and the U.S. government has always known that the effort is not worth it, despite the politicians’ apocalyptic pronouncements regarding the dangers of undocumented immigration.

The long answer is complicated. The system by which foreigners are allowed into the country was built over hundreds of years and it’s a hodgepodge of procedures and databases. Think New York City subway: an old system that is used daily by millions of people and that cannot be shut down one sunny day so as to be replaced with a brand new one. Instead, armies of workers patch it up around the clock in order to keep things moving.

People officially enter the U.S. at airports and sea ports (some huge and some tiny) and on land, at border sites (by foot, by car or by train). Some people must officially leave 90 days after they came in, while others must leave when their program of study has ended (whether that means four years or five years and seven months). Many come in on a tourist visa but then start the procedure to change their status (because, for example, they married an American citizen or were offered a certain type of job). These fluctuating sets of circumstances are recorded in more than a dozen databases, in different ways, at different times, by different government agencies working with different priorities.

When you’re dealing with such a complicated system, you have two choices. One, you continue prioritizing the problems that need your attention and keep the trains running. Two, you convince all stakeholders to come together and spend an enormous amount of money to reform the entire system. The U.S. government is not willing to spend the billions it would need to keep track of every foreigner who enters the country because it’s simply not worth it — not from a safety point of view and not from an economic point of view.

But the political beast must be fed. So we obsess about threats coming from Mexico. “The idea is that there’s this border that is the defense of whiteness against the rest of the world,” Josiah Heyman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, told me in a recent phone interview. “It’s practically and politically hard to arrest visa overstays. But it’s politically easy to send the National Guard to the border to try to arrest people as they come in. It’s a politically cheap and definitely racist answer.”

And so we continue having debates about immigration built on fantasies and ill intent.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.

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