Mexican migrant workers carry boxes of organic kale.

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Fairy Tales and the Immigration Debate

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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Republicans are blasting President Barack Obama ahead of his executive order on immigration for his granting residency status to those who jump the line of the legal process. Here's the problem with that narrative: That line doesn't really exist for most of those affected by the order.


A Mexican worker with no family in the U.S. and no special skills has just a sliver of a chance of getting permanent residence through the proper channels. For him, the alternative to living here illegally was probably not living here at all. That changes the calculation around judging those immigrants and what they deserve.

Look at the numbers. On its face, immigrating to the U.S. can't be that hard; last year 990,553 people got green cards (becoming "lawful permanent residents," in the official terminology). But fully two-thirds of those were sponsored by family members already in the country legally. For people who don't have family here, that effectively leaves three options.

The first is to get permanent resident through their jobs, which is how 161,110 people got green cards last year. But almost all of them were either highly skilled or wealthy: The largest category was professionals with advanced degrees, followed by "priority workers" (including "aliens with extraordinary abilities, outstanding professors and researchers, and certain multinational executives") and investors (with at least $500,000 to spend).

There's also a catchall category, called "skilled workers, professionals and unskilled workers," which accounted for just 4.4 percent of green-card recipients last year, or 43,632 people. The figures for 2013 don't say how many of those people fell into the unskilled-worker category.

The second option is to seek asylum or refugee status, which is how 119,630 people got green cards last year. But most of the 11.2 million people now living in the U.S. illegally came for a job, not to escape persecution, and so couldn't have applied under that category; in 2012, for example, 70 percent of arriving refugees were from Myanmar, Bhutan or Iraq.

Finally, somebody hoping to get permanent residence legally can apply for the Diversity Program, also known as the green-card lottery. That program is capped at 50,000, and only open to people from countries with fewer than 50,000 green-card recipients over the previous five years. That excludes people from Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Colombia and Ecuador, to name just a few.

So say you're a Mexican citizen with no special skills, no money for an investor's visa and no relatives living legally in the U.S. You can't apply for the green-card lottery, and you have no grounds for asylum. Your only hope to move to the U.S. is to be one of the few thousand unskilled workers who squeak in each year -- or to enter illegally.

One answer to all of this is, so what? The majority of people living in the U.S. illegally aren't refugees; the U.S. has no international obligation to accept them. Why should this country have to help people looking for a better life?

But that's not the argument that opponents of immigration reform have been making. Yes, people living here without authorization are breaking the law. Pretending that they had a viable legal alternative just makes it easier to demonize them, by viewing those immigrants as wrongly taking something that might have been theirs had they only followed the rules. The annual green-card figures show that for most of the people affected by Obama's order, that probably wasn't the case.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at