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Carter: Immigrants want the same things we all do

Video from inside the Border Patrol's controversial processing center in McAllen, Texas, during a media tour on June 17.

The recent headlines about children being separated from their parents who were trying to enter the United States have once again made immigration the topic du jour.

While President Trump’s executive order essentially ended the practice of separating children from their mothers and fathers — which had been exacerbated under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy for immigrants crossing the border illegally — the whole ordeal just underscores the need for significant reform to America’s immigration laws.

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What that immigration reform would look like is largely a matter of opinion, and a big part of the reason why laws, by and large, haven’t changed much over the years.

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many people want to be here. For all of our problems, America is still a land of opportunity, particularly if you live in a war-torn country or one overrun by violent drug cartels. (Seeking asylum is a possibility for migrants who can prove they face persecution in their home country. It can be a long process. A 2017 New York Times article indicated that in Los Angeles, hearings for 2011 cases were just being scheduled, highlighting the tremendous backlog for asylum seekers in the U.S.)

There are more people knocking at the door than we’re willing to allow come join the party. And therein lies the problem. Again, it’s a matter of perspective of whether we should allow more people in, or build a stronger door to keep them out.

Why can’t they just come here the legal way? Fun fact: “Illegal” immigration has only been a thing since 1882. Immigration to the U.S. was essentially open throughout much of the first century of America’s independent existence.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to placate white Americans who blamed Chinese immigrants for the low wages and other economic problems. In August of that year, the first Immigration Act was passed, the first time our country began restricting certain classes of people from immigrating to America, and would be the framework for all future immigration laws. Some of these made sense, such as barring convicts. It also barred any “lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” The latter restriction kept anyone deemed too poor from entering the country. Throughout the early 1900s, national origin quotas would be the cornerstones of future immigration policy.

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Our immigration laws of today are complicated. Think of it as one of those popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” books for kids in the ’80s or ‘90s.

If you’re from a country that doesn’t have a high immigration rate, you’re in luck. You can apply for one of the 50,000 diversity visas available annually, colloquially called the Green Card Lottery. Of course, more than 12.4 million people applied for these visas in 2017, giving someone applying roughly a 0.4 percent chance of being selected.

The easiest way is if the person already has immediate family — a spouse, child or parents — in the U.S. that has permanent resident status. The U.S. citizen can then sponsor their family member, and they can typically get a green card in roughly six months. If you’re trying to sponsor a sibling or an uncle, it can take much longer — years, even a decade or more. Of course, if you don’t have a family member who is a legal U.S. citizen, you’re out of luck going this route.

Would-be immigrants can also apply for a employment-based green card. There are a multitude of steps required, including the employer advertising the job to first ensure that aren’t any U.S. citizens willing and qualified to take the job, sponsoring the eligible employee, filing a bunch of paperwork and paying fees, among other hoops. This process can take quite some time too, and only 140,000 visas for principals and dependents are available each year.

None of this includes the sometimes thousands spent in fees or the cost of an immigration lawyer.

Temporary and seasonal visas are also available. When workers overstay these visas, intentionally or not, it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain legal status. There are no hard and fast numbers on how many immigrants this applies to. Pew Research Center estimates 45 percent of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are “overstayers.” The Department of Homeland Security estimated roughly 739,000 overstayed visas in 2016.

Imagine you lived in a high-crime area with schools that were failing. You don’t want to live in fear or have your children grow up in that environment. So you move somewhere that is safe and with better schools, for a better life for you and your children.

For some Carroll County residents who moved here, perhaps from the cities of Baltimore or Washington, D.C., or surrounding suburbs like Randallstown or Rockville, the low crime rate and high quality of schools were probably major factors, right?

Or what about a job? If there is employment in another county or even another state that you believe will provide you and your family with a better life, you can take it and move in a heart beat really.

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There is no bureaucracy stopping someone from doing so.

Not so for immigrants at our country’s borders, most of whom want to come to the United States from Mexico or other Central American countries to escape a violent, high-crime environment, to give their children a better educational opportunity or find a job that will provide a better life for themselves and their families.

For the more than 85 percent of Americans who were born here, myself included, we were lucky. Our parents were living in the U.S. and that made us citizens of the greatest country on Earth the second we took our first breath. A majority of our ancestors were either early settlers or themselves immigrated to America before the country began to significantly tighten its borders, making it more difficult for people of certain ethnicities to immigrate legally.

By no means am I suggesting we freely open our borders to anyone who wants to enter, but I do wish when discussing immigration policy, that more people would put themselves in the shoes of those who are trying to come to our country, and realize they don’t want anything different than any of us want for ourselves and our own families.

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