Legal U.S. Entry Options for Unskilled Workers

Illegal immigrants often risk their lives crossing the border for the opportunity to work in low-wage U.S. jobs. Renee Montagne talks to Ben Johnson of American Immigration Law Foundation about the legal options for unskilled workers trying to get into the United States.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And one of the most common arguments you'll hear against illegal immigration is that illegal immigrants are cutting ahead of other immigrants who are waiting for their turn to enter legally. But what are the legal options for the many unskilled workers, especially from Latin America, trying to make their way across the border?

Ben Johnson is with the American Immigration Law Foundation here in Washington, D.C. He says that if a hopeful immigrant doesn't have a close family member already in the United States, the options are very limited.

Mr. BEN JOHNSON (Director, American Immigration Law Foundation): The principle way to get into the United States is family-based immigration. The majority of immigrants coming in to the United States come in because of a family relationship. You can also get in because of a relationship with an employer who has needs in the United States.

If you're coming in in employment-based channels, there's permanent immigration, applying for what's commonly referred to as a green card, or there are temporary visas that may be available to allow you to come in to work for specific periods of time. Both of the employment or temporary visas, the employers has to request the employee. So it's the employer that does the requesting. And for unskilled workers, the numbers of visas, both permanent and temporary visas that we have available, is incredibly low. We have five thousand green cards that are set aside every year for workers in what we categorize as unskilled occupations.

MONTAGNE: That's for everyone in the world?

Mr. JOHNSON: Everyone in the world. And, because those numbers can't be dominated by any one country, Mexico, our neighbor to the south, has access to the same number of visas as Mongolia.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about waiting times. When it comes to how long it takes to get in--if one has a connection with an employer--what's involved and why such a long wait?

Mr. JOHNSON: Most of the wait time is for permanent green cards. That's where you see wait times of five, seven, ten years. Temporary visas, the wait time is shorter. An employer could get access to an employee in a much shorter period of time--somewhere around, maybe six months to eight months. There the problem isn't the wait time. The problem is the availability of the visas.

In any given year, we only allow 66,000 non-agricultural workers to come into the United States temporarily. They are available only to industries where they have seasonal needs--places like ski resorts, or hotels and restaurants that are only open during certain times of the season. But for the rest of the work force, the unskilled work force, restaurants who are open year-round, meat packing plants, construction industries--there is no temporary visa that's available to those industries.

MONTAGNE: What is it then, when people talk about a line that hopeful immigrants would have to get in to enter the country if they want to do it legally?

Mr. JOHNSON: There are people who are waiting to get in to the United States legally, but they're not people who are going after unskilled occupations in the United States. They are people who are applying through a family member. They are people who are applying for other kinds of skilled occupations.

In fact, a lot of the undocumented workers that are in the United States have submitted an application for one of those 5,000 green cards, and they're waiting for their turn, their number to come up. They decided that it didn't make any sense for them to wait ten years in order to get a job as a busboy, and they came into the United States and began working as a busboy even though their application is pending.

MONTAGNE: Ben Johnson is Director of the Immigration Policy Center at the American Immigration Law Foundation.

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