Two weeks ago, Guadalupe García de Rayos, a mother of two U.S. citizens, was deported to Mexico after spending more than 20 years in the United States. Guadalupe crossed the border illegally with her parents at the age of 14 and in 2009 she was arrested while working to support her family with a fake Social Security number. Her deportation has sparked protests, outrage and questions across the country. Among the Trump faithful there was criticism for the mother of two; she had over 20 years to make herself legal, why didn't she fix her immigration status?
This is a question I encounter often as I travel across the country giving lectures at colleges and universities: "Why don't "illegals" get in the back of the line, and do it the right way?" The short answer is that "the line" is a mythical place, a phrase used to deflect the need for immigration reform. The fact is, for most undocumented immigrants there is no application they can fill out, process they can go through, not even a fine they can pay to start the process of becoming U.S. citizens. As a former undocumented immigrant, I know firsthand that being undocumented is not a state one chooses.
The first challenge to immigrating to the U.S. legally is that there are only a few categories to obtain a worker visa to legally work in the U.S., including for fashion models of "distinguished merit and ability". There are a limited number of temporary visas for agricultural workers from certain countries. There are work visas for highly specialized positions, however no visas exist for many of the traditional industries where undocumented immigrants work, such as the construction and restaurant industries. When a mother or father wants to migrate to America to give their family a better life, a legal process, a line doesn't exist for the types of jobs they seek. As George Bush in a 1980 Republican presidential debate said, "We've made illegal some kind of labor that I would like to be legal."
The second challenge undocumented immigrants face in becoming permanent residents, and eventually U.S. Citizens is that there are only a handful of ways to obtain permanent residency; through family, a job (which as explained above is not feasible for many immigrants), as asylum seekers, and a few other special circumstances. Unless an undocumented immigrant has a relative, such as a mother, father, or spouse that is a permanent resident or U.S. Citizen, there are few other processes to fix their immigration status. I became undocumented after my tourist visa expired at the age of 14. None of my professional or academic achievements qualified me to become a permanent resident. I graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Austin, and became a vice-president at Goldman Sachs. But it wasn't until I married a U.S citizen, over a decade after my visa expired, that I become eligible to adjust my status.