I see that the focus is on the limited and highly restricted avenues for applying. That’s a powerful indictment of our “system” and will be revealing to many who believe it’s a much more straightforward process than it actually is, or who think the rules from decades ago, like marry a citizen and become a citizen automatically, still apply. I wish the section on applying for adult family members had also mentioned that the wait time can approach three decades, and the sponsoring family member must still be alive when approval is finally granted. Rosa and I thought about sponsoring her son, Armando. At the time, I was almost 60. What were the odds I’d still be alive at 90, or that he’d want to come to the U.S. for the first time when he was 64?


Another part of the “why” is the sheer number of ways to apply, each with its own stupefying set of criteria around who can and can’t use that avenue, documentation required, etc. I recently attended a seminar on immigration put on by CLINIC. I had some idea going in about the complexity of picking the right avenue and what the ramifications of each option might be, but I quickly learned it’s a lot worse. For example, someone who crossed the border at an immigration checkpoint and wasn’t asked to show a passport or visa actually entered the country legally. That one sticks with me, but even with extensive notes, I couldn’t correctly answer half the questions they posed about hypothetical scenarios.


In any case, I think finding the “right way” to apply is less than half the mental and emotional battle. An understanding of what likely comes next could, and maybe should, be a bigger factor in an immigrant’s decision about whether to try to apply the “right way.”


One factor is the fear of being “in the system.” Undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. are, to varying extents and at times entirely, unknown to “the system.” These immigrants may believe the risk of being deported, including being banned from returning for as long as the rest of their life, goes up if the system knows too much about them. In my ESL class, I have students who won’t get the COVID vaccine, not because they’re anti-vaxxers, but for fear of being “in the system.” An undocumented immigrant who’s been here without incident for many years makes a strong case with family members and friends for choosing to remain undocumented.


Another factor has to be cost. I know you know, but application fees are steep and the odds of success go way down without a lawyer. We tried to apply for a lifting of restrictions on our own and were denied (after over 6 months in process). When a lawyer got involved, however, Rosa was magically and quickly approved, despite minimal changes to the application itself (some folks in our congregation wrote letters attesting to our relationship and another member notarized them). Our lawyer told us he had no idea why we were rejected based on what we had originally submitted. His theory was just that someone at USCIS had a bad day. I think there’s more to it than just having a bad day. The process and rules for approving changes in status are secret and aren’t required to be applied uniformly across all applications. It also wouldn’t surprise me if agents were given objectives for denying a certain percentage of applications, but since it’s all a secret, conspiracy theories like mine will prevail.


Applying can also require multiple in-person trips back to the applicant’s country for documents related to their birth, marriages, divorces, where they received vaccinations, criminal background checks, etc. In Rosa’s case, that meant traveling to both El Salvador and Nicaragua (three times), only to find on her return, for example, that her certified vaccination records from Nicaragua weren’t acceptable. We then paid to have her re-vaccinated. Her doctor literally said it was “stupid” – it’s hard to disagree. One also hass to pay a certified translator to translate every document into English. And for many, aside from the costs involved, traveling to their home country puts a successful return to the U.S. at risk.


Last but not least, for immigrants who hired a coyote to get them to the U.S., even those who arrived alive, hoped for asylum, and immediately surrendered to border patrol, they have already spent their family’s life savings and likely secured a significant amount of money from loan sharks. They have no more money to spend.


Rosa had and was able to convert her tourist visa, but complying fully with the letter of the law cost us over $17,000 all in – fees, lawyer, travel, unnecessary vaccinations, translations, apostille seals, etc. When it came to getting her U.S. citizenship, we were very fortunate that Rosa had enrolled in English classes at Journey House. Their Citizenship class, for which Journey House charges nothing, included a scholarship to pay the application fee.


Bottom line, $17,000+ was a lot of money for us. For immigrants who are aware of the potential costs, not to mention the booby traps and limited opportunities, I’m sure it looks easier and safer not to do so.