As political debate swirls around immigration, it gets harder to separate facts from myths. An online panel of experts on June 15 tried to do just that – offering facts on the various pathways to legal status in the United States.
For example, some people wonder why immigrants don’t just “get in line” to come to the United States, said moderator Laura Flores-Bachman, director of legal programs and operations with the ABA Commission on Immigration. But that’s an oversimplification of the process, she said.
There is no single line,” Flores-Bachman said. Often migrants come to the United States to be reunited with close relatives already here, or they come because they have jobs waiting from U.S. employers, but sometimes even those factors are not enough to satisfy the immigration system. “There simply may not be visas available, or the individual may have a ground of inadmissibility… And so even having a strong family connection, even having an employer willing to sponsor you, you may not be eligible.”
Another myth, said Hiroshi Motomura, a UCLA law professor, is that there is a single, well-defined path for refugees. Actually, Motomura said, the word “refugee” is confusing because “it's used for many different purposes.”
The term was legally defined in the Geneva Convention after World War II to cover anyone with a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, Motomura said.
But in practice, he added, the protection system in the United States for people forced out of their home countries “has actually broadened beyond that definition.” The definition of “refugee” in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act is central to how Americans think about protecting people who are forced to flee their home countries, Motomura said. “But at the same,” he added “it's a myth that this is the whole practical ambit of protection for forced migrants, because that's not true either.”
And the case law on which groups are protected under immigration laws is rapidly changing, said Kevin Gregg, a partner with the firm Kurzban Kurzban Tetzeli & Pratt, P.A. “In order to stay in the United States, you have to fear death for the right reasons,” he said.
For example, Gregg noted, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in May that people who own land in Honduras can be eligible for asylum in the U.S. because they are persecuted based on their land ownership. The same court ruled that being a single mother living without male protection in Honduras could be the basis for asylum, Gregg said. And the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that the mistaken belief that someone is a lesbian in Guatemala, even if they aren’t actually a lesbian, could qualify someone for asylum in the U.S., he added.
The definition of who is eligible for asylum “changes through litigation every month,” Gregg said. “Asylum law keeps expanding.”
Meanwhile, Motomura said, Congress refuses to look at the larger issues driving immigration. “There has not been a serious effort to think about why people migrate and to address those,” he said. “Imagine what would have happened if, when we started temporary protected status in the 1990s, this country had taken seriously the effort to make it possible for people to not have to flee [their home countries]. We’d be having a very different conversation.”
The program, “Immigration Law Myths and Realities: An Overview of the Limited Pathways to Legal Status in the U.S.,” was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Immigration and the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. Video of the panel discussion is online here.
- ABA Commission on Immigration report: Reforming the Immigration System
- ABA Report: Immigration Enforcement Mechanisms at the U.S. Border
- ABA Report: Navigating Immigration Detention – A Guide for Family and Friends of Individuals in Detention
- ABA Journal: