Why It's So Hard for Millions to Become Legal Immigrants

February 3rd 2017

Nicole Levin

As a candidate, President Donald Trump argued that it was legal immigrants who made this country great, though his recent executive order has hurt even those with valid U.S. visas trying to come back to the country they call home. For many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S., though, it's worth remembering: there is no way for them to become U.S. citizens.

Immigrant Rights are Civil Rights

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center Poll, 72 percent of Americans think there should be a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country. However, despite what many think, there is no path to citizenship for those who aren't already legal immigrants.

"If there was a way to, they’d do it," immigration lawyer and former government attorney Carl Shusterman told ATTN:, "but for 99 percent of undocumented immigrants, there's not." 

As the American Immigration Council (AIC) notes, an immigrant can gain citizenship through a work visa, family relations, refugee status, or the Diversity Visa Program, and can't obtain any of those if they're currently breaking U.S. immigration law.

Legal Permanent Residents

Most immigrants fail to qualify for refugee status or for the Diversity Visa Program. And the Pew Research Center found that with Trump's ban, the number of refugees allowed in the United States will likely fall from 110,000 to 50,000. Furthermore, the Diversity Program only allocates 55,000 green cards to people from countries with low rates of immigration. People from countries with higher rates of immigration — such as Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines — are not eligible. 

Refugees in U.S. overtime

Most people who qualify for work visas have high levels of education, professional experience, and are already sponsored by an employer — and there are a limited number of work visas. 

"There is no way for a farm worker to get sponsored for a green card, and it’s very hard for a maid or a construction worker to get one," Shusterman noted. "These people are performing tasks and getting hired by Americans illegally. The Americans don’t get punished and [workers] can’t sleep at night because they’re worried that the immigration agents will show up at their house and say ‘you're gone.'”

Family-based immigration is also limited. Even if someone does qualify, and has a direct family member able to provide for them, they may have to wait years to enter the country or gain a visa. According to the Shusterman, that wait time can be anywhere from 12 to 21 years depending on which country a person is from. If you want to bring in a sibling from the Philippines, for example, the wait time is over two decades. 

The so-called "anchor baby" is also something of a myth. Even if a child was born in the U.S., that child must wait until they're 21-years-old. And anyone found to have entered the country illegally is barred from entering it again for 10 years.

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an executive order protecting the parents of children with green cards from deportations, however, a tie in the Supreme Court effectively blocked this move. The last significant immigration reform was in 1986 under president Ronald Reagan. While that reform ranted amnesty to three million immigrants who were living in the country illegally, as The Washington Post noted, it failed to create a framework for dealing with illegal immigration in the long run. Since, no president has passed any comprehensive reform. 

With the recent travel ban and proposed wall on the southern border, the U.S. has become increasingly hostile to immigrants, undocumented or not. In 2016, Trump said he did not support a path to citizenship for immigrants who were already in the country, and, as The Washington Post reports, future executive orders may see immigration restricted even further — with even those here legally at risk of deportation for accepting public assistance. 

Shusterman predicts the administration will limit family sponsored visas, as Trump's pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and many anti-immigrant groups have been critical of the policy. 

Shusterman can't help but fear there's a racial aspect to Trump's immigration agenda. The question going forward: "Are we going to preserve our current system," he asked, "or are we going to make it a 'whites only' policy?"