Limbo Status Inevitable For Migrants, Expert Says

This week Tell Me More's 'In Limbo' series has explored four personal stories of immigrants in the middle space between legal and illegal. To better understand the complex laws that have affected their lives, host Michel Martin speaks with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we hear what you have to say about some of our recent conversations. That's our Backtalk segment and it's in just a few minutes.

But first, the last in a series of conversations we've been having about immigration in this country, specifically, what it's like to be in limbo, in that middle space between legal and illegal or to be related to somebody who is.

In the course of the week, we met a so-called dream kid named Maria Luna. She's one of the thousands of young people brought to this country as a child when they were too young to make a decision about it. In Maria's rather unusual case, both her parents were legal residents, as was her grandmother, who brought her to the United States when she was just three days old.

MARIA LUNA: They argue that a life is born at conception. However, even though I was conceived here and I was just, you know, unfortunately born in a different country, their theory doesn't apply to me. But, for me, I am as American as any other American can be. I've lived here all of my life. I consider myself a Californian and even - you know, I think of my situation as a temporary problem. I know and I believe in my heart that I will become a legal resident and definitely a U.S. citizen.

MARTIN: We also told you this week about a seeker of political asylum who met her husband, married here and had a child before she was actually forced to leave the country.

We told you about a burn victim in need of long-term medical treatment and an illegal farm worker who went on to become a respected brain surgeon.

Now, we want to hear another perspective. Mark Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies. He's a well-known voice favoring a more restrictive immigration policy. He's with us now to give his perspective and also to help us explain why so many people are in limbo. And he's with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

MARK KRIKORIAN: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now, as I said, I know you have an opinion on this debate, but before I ask you about your opinion, I wanted to ask you just about the facts. Why are there so many people in limbo?

KRIKORIAN: It's the kind of thing that happens for a couple reasons. First, we have a very complicated, convoluted immigration law. There's lots of nooks and crannies and wrinkles. There's so many visa categories, we're running out of alphabet letters.

So when you have that kind of overly complex body of law, there's all kinds of people who are going to end up falling between various cracks, ending up stuck in corners. Part of it's - there's almost no getting around it, given how absurdly complex the law is.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you this? Why is the law so complex?

KRIKORIAN: Well, why is the tax law complex? It's the same kind of thing. You know, in a democracy, you've got interest groups. Everybody wants their own visa category. Politicians will sort of add on their little bit to this law and their special programs...

MARTIN: OK.

KRIKORIAN: ...to that law. And so you end up with this just monstrosity.

MARTIN: And what's the second issue?

KRIKORIAN: The second thing is that interest groups have been so successful in preventing consistent enforcement of the immigration laws that you can end up with, say, the Polish woman who was here for 12 years after she got her notice to leave the country.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that, for example, since you brought that particular case up, of a person who - people use the term, without papers. Well, she had papers. I mean, she filed when she arrived for political asylum, following the rules and it took years to work her way through the system.

And I'm just wondering, what does the law envision? That a person who's filed for asylum status will do what? Live like a monk until the case is adjudicated?

KRIKORIAN: Right. First of all, asylum laws change so that, what happened was, when she applied, she got the right to work; immediately got to get a work card. And then the application went on to the giant pile, you know, like you see in those commercials of people who throw their telephone bills away, there's a huge pile. Well, it's almost like that. So she was able to work legally for that first six years until they turned her down.

Part of the problem is this idea that Congress doesn't appropriate money for the service side of immigration; the green cards, the citizenship, all of that sort of thing. It's all funded by the fees immigrants pay.

Now, the idea that the fees have to pay for everything, it leads to bad planning because you can't do the kind of long-term investment in computer technology and all the rest of it because you don't know how much money you're necessarily going to end up with next year.

MARTIN: Do you have any sympathy, though, for the human cost of these delays? As we mentioned, this was a person who did everything right according to the law as she understood it. She came here, she sought asylum, she met another person, they married, they had a child.

I just want to play a short clip from the conversation that we had with this. We talked about the separation when she was eventually deported, where her family was essentially broken up for years. Here it is:

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANINA WASILEWSKI: Our first four years was very terrible for us and probably we will always remember that, especially, you know, for our child. Probably he will remember all the time.

MARTIN: We heard from a number of listeners who want to understand how Janina was finally able to come back and it is a very complicated story, far beyond the scope of what we can talk about here, but her husband had become a citizen. He appealed his wife's deportation. After four years and on the third try, she was able to return to the United States. And I want to ask you, you know, what does that say about the system? What do you draw from that?

KRIKORIAN: Well, first of all, you really need to start from the beginning. She came here, waited six years for her asylum decision to be made. Now, that was ridiculous. And that's actually been improved. That side of it - people get asylum decisions a lot quicker than they used to.

Then though, she was told she was turned down and, instead of actually being deported, they often say, if they don't have any space, they say, OK, sign this paper that says you're going to leave within this certain amount of time and just do it on your own time instead of us locking you up.

So that's what she did, but then she didn't leave. She stayed for 12 years and that's obviously a problem with law enforcement, but it really is a problem for the illegal immigrants themselves because it kind of strings them along. I mean, we need to have, in this particular instance, an effective system to track down people. Your time is up. If you're still here six months or a year after you're supposed to go, somebody needs to go look for you.

And this idea of kind of looking the other way and not enforcing the law leads to these kind of lamentable situations where people put down roots and then you end up having to rip them out.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is the final conversation in our week long immigration series, In Limbo, where we've been examining the circumstances of many people who are in limbo in their immigration status.

We're speaking with Mark Krikorian. He's the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

What about the case of Chi Chi Omeje, who is a teen? She was severely burned as a child in Nigeria. And I also want to mention here that many people were saying, well, that's a shame of what happened to her, but I don't think my tax money should be used to support such a person. I do want to emphasize here that she was brought here and supported here through the charitable donations of people who were moved by her case. This was not a case of the government or entities using tax dollars to support her. This was private funding that brought her here and maintained her while here.

But she did have a medical visa, but her treatment took so long, just to deal with her sort of medical situation that she's not well enough to leave, so she's afraid she'd die if she went back to Nigeria. But she doesn't really have any way to stay here except through the kindness of others.

What's your take on that?

KRIKORIAN: Well, I mean, this is one of those difficult situations that I'm not really sure there is a kind of pat, bumper sticker answer to this. I mean, the first thing you need to keep in mind is Nigeria alone has probably more people with these, you know, various kinds of medical disabilities and medical problems than all of the facilities in the United States combined could ever handle.

So the idea that everyone who is in distress in the world can come here is just not the case. Unfortunately, what you end up with is people who, you know, find - I mean, to be frank about it - sympathetic filmmakers and radio hosts who do stories on them and they end up - that's the way we sort of filter out who gets to stay and who doesn't.

MARTIN: What about the situation of the so-called dream kid, Maria Luna? This is the kind of scenario that has been very much in the news of late, of children who were brought here at a very young age, you know, by their parents.

Let's just stipulate that every kid who's brought here by his or her parents at a young age is not a standout person. You know, there are some people who've just gotten into trouble, done some terrible things, committed awful crimes.

KRIKORIAN: And they're not all as good looking as she is, either.

MARTIN: And they're not all as lovely or - although I have not noticed. But, you know, and, of course, her circumstances are a teeny bit unusual in the sense that both of her parents are U.S. residents and simply did not take the steps that they could have taken to normalize her status.

But what about the broader issue?

KRIKORIAN: The broader issue is, you know, kids who not just came here when they were minors, but kids who grew up as Americans. That's kind of the point. As one advocacy group put it, they're Americans in all but paperwork. I think that's a strong prudential case to make for legalizing kids in that situation.

The problem is the Dream Act itself really isn't that and the Dream Act applies to people brought here anytime before their 16th birthday, for instance. Well, you know, I've got a 16 year old and if he and I snuck into Mexico to live, he'd be an American, psychologically, for the rest of his life, however much he'd make a life there if that's what happened.

The Dream Act, it seems to me, needs to be narrowed down, slimmed down, so that it's for kids who really were brought here, say, before seven or eight, before they have really much in the way of memories of anyplace else. Those kids - I think there's a case to make for it. But even there, it's incomplete because it needs to have enforcement component to make sure that you don't have future kids in this situation and you need to take steps to make sure that the adults don't end up benefitting. That wouldn't apply in her case because they're already residents, but in most cases, it's illegal immigrant parents bringing their kids with them.

MARTIN: We began this series with Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, who literally jumped the fence between Mexico and the U.S., became a farmworker and did a host of all those jobs that people say Americans don't want to do, eventually worked his way through college, went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School. Now, he is a highly-respected neurosurgeon contributing in a very impressive way to this country.

Would it be possible for this to happen today? And what do you draw from this story?

KRIKORIAN: Well, I mean, it's obviously a real inspiring kind of Horatio Alger story and, obviously, the man has amazing abilities and amazing drive. The problem is, it doesn't really tell us much about policy because, yes, you'll have an illegal immigrant who turns out as a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins, but there's another illegal immigrant who's going to end up being a mass murder. Does he tell us anything about immigration policy? No, not necessarily. You need to look at the broad phenomena.

And the fact is that most illegal immigrants, regardless of what the situation is, they'd all be legalized. We could give them all citizenship tomorrow and a lollipop and they're going to end up being brain surgeons. I mean, you have to look at...

MARTIN: Or nor are most Americans...

KRIKORIAN: Well, that's true.

MARTIN: ...who are born here.

KRIKORIAN: Of course. You have to look at broad trends, phenomenon, not just an individual instance.

MARTIN: Well, I said at the outset that I was going to give you a chance to give us your opinion about what course you think immigration policy should take and you've given us a kind of a critique of each of these examples and we appreciate that.

But your final thought on the course you think immigration policy should take?

KRIKORIAN: So in 30 seconds, I'll tell you what I would do if I were emperor.

MARTIN: What you would do if you were emperor.

KRIKORIAN: What we need to do is we need to have real enforcement first, with no preconditions, no deals, no nothing. And then, after a period of time, once we have in place the mechanisms to actually enforce the law, once we have a political commitment to stick with it, then we can have a debate about whom we legalize, whom we don't.

The problem with having that legalization discussion up front as a part of a package is that the amnesty happens. The promises of enforcement are inevitably abandoned.

MARTIN: And what do you say to all these people who are, in fact, in limbo for all of the various reasons that we talked about? And, frankly, we only scratched the surface.

KRIKORIAN: Some of them are going to end up staying in limbo. When you leave your immigration system as feckless and badly run as ours is, there is no kind of easy, clean, quick solution that's going to fix everything and everybody's going to be happy with it. There's just going to have to be some significant number of people who are going to end up staying in limbo.

Some of them will decide to go back. Some of them may eventually benefit at some point in the future, but just because people are in limbo isn't then an excuse that that should somehow all be resolved magically without keeping in mind that there's all kinds of side effects and fallout from those kind of actions.

MARTIN: Mark Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. As we said, it's a nonprofit think tank that generally favors a more restrictive view of immigration policy and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

If you'd like to hear all the other conversations we had in our In Limbo series, please go to our website. Go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

Mark Krikorian, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KRIKORIAN: Thank you.

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