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Immigrating legally means navigating a system both political parties say is broken. Here’s why it’s so difficult.

By Uriel J. García, The Texas Tribune

Immigrating legally means navigating a system both political parties say is broken. Here’s why it’s so difficult.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Jessica Mejía and her family had a good life in Colombia. They owned an electronics business and traveled to Houston every year, where they stayed with Mejía’s older sister Nataly, who had moved to Texas to study English at Houston Community College.

Mejía, her parents and her younger brother would stay for a month, eating out and shopping at Ross or Marshalls before flying back home to Medellín.

Everything changed in 2012, when a criminal group in Medellín approached Santiago, Mejía’s younger brother, demanding that he pay them for “protection.” Santiago, who earned a living by purchasing electronics in the U.S. and reselling them, refused to pay.

The gang shot him to death.

The men who killed Santiago then called Mejía’s mother, Carmen Ramírez, demanding that the family pay protection money or they were next. When Ramírez reported the extortion to police, a prosecutor advised her to leave the country, Ramírez and Mejía said.

But Mejía discovered that her brother’s murder and the death threats weren’t enough to claim asylum in the U.S. — they needed to prove a fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Fearing for their lives, Mejía and her mother used their tourist visas to flee to Houston. Her father decided to stay behind, Mejía said. When their tourist visas expired, they remained in Houston as undocumented immigrants.

That’s when they began a long and expensive path to getting legal status in the U.S. More than a decade later, Mejía and Ramírez are legal permanent residents — both have what’s commonly known as a green card — and are on a path to obtaining U.S. citizenship after navigating what most U.S. elected officials acknowledge is a broken system.

“I never thought we’d be living here. My parents lived comfortably in Colombia, and I was working and about to graduate [from college] and have a stable job. I just pictured my future in Medellín,” Mejía said. “But after the tragedy, our lives had a 180-degree turn.”

They joined the hundreds of thousands of migrants who enter the U.S. every year and become undocumented immigrants. Most cross the border illegally, surrender to the U.S. Border Patrol and request asylum. Some evade law enforcement at the border and melt into the underground economy. Others, like Mejía and her mother, enter legally with a visa and don’t return home.

Even though the country’s two major political parties agree the current immigration system doesn’t work, they have been divided on how to overhaul a system that has been a political wedge issue for decades.

Immigration laws haven’t had a major overhaul since 1986 — when Republican President Ronald Reagan signed a law that legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants while also creating penalties for employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Since then, major immigration reform has been an unreachable goal even as the number of people trying to enter the U.S. has exploded.

Migrant encounters at the southern border reached a 20-year record high of 1.7 million in fiscal year 2021, according to federal immigration data. That record was broken last year, with 2.4 million encounters — and the number reached 2.2 million through the first 11 months of the 2023 fiscal year. Of that number, 1.1 million encounters were on the Texas-Mexico border.

And that’s a fraction of the people who want to migrate to the U.S., according to a recent report titled “Why Legal Immigration is Nearly Impossible,” by David J. Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank. The report says that of the 158 million people across the world who wanted to move to the U.S. in 2018, 32 million started the process to become legal permanent residents — and 1 million were successful.

Democrats say the government needs to create more pathways for immigrants to enter the U.S. legally, including guest worker programs for industries other than agriculture. They also say the government needs to legalize undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children by their parents and don’t have a criminal history — in 2012, the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, to protect them from deportation and let them apply for a two-year renewable work permit.

Republicans, meanwhile, have pushed to seal the southern border with more barriers and border agents and called for deporting undocumented immigrants already in the country, arguing that they should simply get in line to immigrate legally to the U.S.

“I would suggest go home and get in line, come into the United States legally, then get a green card, then become a citizen,” Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, who reached national prominence by promoting hard-line immigration enforcement policies in his state and others, said in 2017, referring to DACA recipients.

It’s not that simple, Bier said.

“It’s a joke. They have no conception of how the laws operate and what they’re even asking of people,” Bier said in an interview. “In many cases, it’s willful ignorance, there’s no attempt to understand this because they don’t care about creating a viable way for people to come legally. They only care about keeping people out of the country.”

The reality, he said, is that the line to legally enter the U.S. takes years, and often decades, and costs more than most would-be immigrants can afford — $1,760 to apply for a green card within the U.S. or $1,200 if the migrant is applying outside of the country, plus the cost of a medical exam and thousands more if they hire a lawyer.

“The myth that legal immigration is relatively easy or a matter of simply waiting a few years persists,” Bier wrote in the report. “The focus then becomes solely on how to deal with the symptom of the restrictions — people crossing illegally — rather than the restrictions themselves, and legal immigration reforms fall to the wayside.”

Political stalemate on immigration reform

U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, and Maria Elvira Salazar, a Republican from Florida, have introduced a 500-page proposal that would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children and allow other undocumented immigrants to work legally in the U.S. if they paid restitution. It would also provide money to hire more immigration agents and provide them with additional technology.

But there’s no widespread support among Republican lawmakers for such a proposal; Republican lawmakers who have proposed creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people have been painted as weak on border security by immigration hardliners in their party.

And the hardliners are the majority in the GOP, led by former President Donald Trump and his emphasis on building a border wall. According to a September 2022 report by Pew Research Center, 60% of U.S. adults say the federal government should legalize the status of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, down from 67% in 2019.

“The decline reflects a decrease among Republicans — especially conservative Republicans. In 2019, about half of Republicans, or 48%, said this should be an important goal; today, just 37% say the same,” the report says.

Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit in Washington that advocates to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, said immigration laws reward people who enter the country illegally.

“That’s precisely why you have so many people coming to the United States illegally,” he said. “Because they believe that if they get here, if they stick it out long enough, eventually, the system will bend to their will, they’ll find some reason to be able to get a green card and eventually become a citizen.”

The group recently signed on to a letter with other conservative groups, urging Republican lawmakers to support the Secure the Border Act, which would make it more difficult for migrants to claim asylum in the U.S.

Mehlman said anyone who has crossed the border illegally should never be allowed to legalize their status.

“If you believe that you can get a benefit by breaking the law, you’re likely to see more people breaking the law,” he said. “If you make it clear that you’re likely not going to benefit, the opposite will happen, fewer people will do it.”

Bier said many of the roughly 1 million green card recipients per year enter the country illegally because they felt they had no other choice.

“I think (Mejía and her mother’s) story shows that immigrants have no other option other than to violate the law in order to immigrate,” he said.

Legal paths for immigrants

The simplest, and fastest, way for immigrants to become legal residents is through family sponsorship. U.S. citizens 21 and older can sponsor their parents, spouse or children 21 years or younger. They’re considered a priority by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — typically it takes a year or two for green card approval — and there’s no cap on how many people can legally immigrate this way.

Citizens can also sponsor their siblings — along with the siblings’ spouses and unmarried children under 21 — and their own unmarried adult children, but the process can take seven to 24 years, depending on the availability of green cards and which country the immigrant is from.

There are at least four other ways an immigrant can legally live and work in the U.S.:

  • As a refugee. The U.S. government says a refugee is anyone who has a well-founded fear of persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, political opinion” in their home country. In fiscal year 2023, which ended Sept. 30, 60,000 refugees were admitted into the U.S., a 71% decrease from 1980, when the refugee resettlement program began and the U.S. admitted just over 207,100 refugees. Refugees can get a green card after living in the country for a year.
  • Claiming asylum. The huge numbers of migrants entering through the southern border in recent years are mostly asylum-seekers, who must meet the same threshold as refugees but typically appear at the U.S. border rather than applying from their home countries. A record 1.6 million asylum cases were pending as of December, and it can take an average of five years for each case to be decided. Those who are given asylum can apply for a green card.
  • The diversity lottery. The U.S. government picks names at random using a computer program from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S. The 55,000 annual visas are capped per country; no nation can receive more than 7% of the total, and applicants have a 20% chance of being chosen. It can take nearly two years for winners to get a green card.
  • Work visas. The U.S. gives 140,000 employment-based green cards every year to immigrants who have extraordinary talent, do work of “national importance,” or show the ability to invest at least $900,000 in the U.S. For example, Dallas Mavericks point guard Luka Dončić and former First Lady Melania Trump, both born in Slovenia, received work visas for “extraordinary talent” as an athlete and a model, respectively. The employer must prove they can’t find a legal U.S. resident to do a specific job.

Immigrants can live and work in the U.S. indefinitely with a green card, which are valid for two or 10 years and must be renewed. Those who want to apply for U.S. citizenship have to wait five years after they receive their green card — or three years if they’re married to a U.S. citizen.

According to federal data, more than 967,500 immigrants became citizens in fiscal year 2022, a 20% increase from the year before and the highest number since 2008. The median time spent as a green card holder before applying for citizenship was seven years in 2022, the data shows.

But most green card holders don’t apply for citizenship. Nationally, 9 million legal immigrants qualify for citizenship, including more than 808,000 in Texas, but only 9% of them have applied, according to a report by One Percent for America, a nonprofit launched in 2021 that offers loans to immigrants who can’t afford to apply for citizenship.

Carmen Ramirez's notes in her Baytown home on August 24, 2023. Ramirez, originally from Colombia, takes weekly English classes and studies the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services guides in preparation for the naturalization test.
Carmen Ramirez’s notes in her Baytown home on Thursday, August 24, 2023. Ramirez, originally from Colombia, takes weekly English classes and studies the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services guides in preparation for the naturalization test. Credit: Briana Vargas for The Texas Tribune

Edna Yang, a co-executive director of American Gateways in Austin, an immigrant advocacy organization, said for many immigrants, one trip through the U.S. immigration bureaucracy is enough.

“They’re maybe traumatized from going through the immigration system the first time and the length of time they took, the cost,” Yang said.

One Percent for America says it has approved about 632 loans at 1% interest to cover citizenship fees — currently $750, not counting the cost of a lawyer. Seventy loans have gone to immigrants in Texas, including Mejía and her mother.

“You have to do what you have to do”

When she was younger, Mejía said she took her family’s visits to Houston for granted.

“I was really immature. I was very materialistic, I would shop for brand-name clothes,” she said. “But now that I live here, I’ve come to appreciate my family, my job and the sacrifices you make to survive.”

By the time Mejía and her mother moved to Houston, her sister Nataly had married a U.S. citizen, who sponsored Nataly for a green card and after three years, she was able to get U.S. citizenship. Nataly was then able to sponsor her mother. Ramírez got her green card eight years ago.

But Nataly didn’t try to sponsor Mejía; it would have taken at least 14 years because the U.S. has a cap on sibling-to-sibling sponsorship.

So for seven years, Mejía lived in Houston with her sister as an undocumented immigrant and worked as a private Spanish teacher, giving lessons to a 6-year-old boy a few days per week. Later she got a job waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant in Houston. She said there were times she was frustrated, especially when customers made fun of her accent when she spoke English.

“When you don’t have papers, you have to do jobs you don’t like,” she said. “But you have to do what you have to do.”

On Mother’s Day 2013, she took her mother out for dinner at a restaurant that hosted a Latin Dance night. A Cuban man asked her to dance. A year later they got married and now have a 2-year-old son. Her husband, who is a U.S. citizen, sponsored her for a green card.

As part of the process, Mejía mailed immigration officials a package that included bills, family photos and letters from friends and family stating her and her husband truly love each other. She got her green card in 2019.

She now works as a social worker at a migrant shelter in Baytown. She said she loves working with migrants because she is able to provide them hope that they too can one day become U.S. citizens.

“I’m passionate about and love my job,” she said. “As an immigrant, I like helping other immigrants. They ask me, ‘How long does it take to learn English?’”

She said her mother, who works as a custodian at an elementary school, didn’t apply for citizenship when she qualified because of the cost and her lack of confidence in her English skills. But when Mejía qualified to apply for citizenship this year, it renewed her mother’s interest in studying for the citizenship exam. They mailed their applications together this summer and are waiting for an appointment to be interviewed by an immigration officer — the last step before taking the test.

They want to be able to vote in U.S. elections and both plan to stay in the U.S. for the rest of their lives. Mejía said she wants to transfer her college credits from Colombia and apply for student loans so she can get a master’s degree in social work.

Getting citizenship, Mejía said, would close a chapter in their immigrant story and start a new one.

“We immigrated together, so we’re becoming citizens together,” Mejía said.

Brandy Ruiz contributed reporting to this story.

Disclosure: Houston Community College has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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