The Link: Legal and Illegal Immigration

By Mark Krikorian February 1997

New York Post, February 16, 1997

The Immigration and Naturalization Service recently reported that there were five million illegal aliens in the U.S. as of last fall - several hundred thousand more than the government had previously thought.

This marks a grim milestone. The number of illegals is now the same as it was before Congress passed the 1986 amnesty, which legalized nearly three million people. Clearly, the strategy of giving green cards to illegal aliens in combination with promises of stricter enforcement has failed completely.

Government efforts directed against illegal immigration have been woefully inadequate for a very long time. Congress and the administration have sought to rectify this over the past two years, culminating in last fall's immigration bill, which increased the Border Patrol, stiffened penalties on smugglers and document forgers and tightened up a wide variety of legal procedures.

But a glaring omission guarantees that the illegal population will continue to grow: Congress and the administration emphasized that illegal immigration should be dealt with separately from legal immigration.

Proponents of this approach argue that the two are distinct; that one constitutes lawless behavior, while the other is a lawful process. This view results from a fundamental misunderstanding of how immigration works. In fact, legal and illegal immigration are merely two parts of the same process. And there can be no successful control of illegal immigration without changes and reductions in its legal cousin.

Why are they linked? Because the volume of legal immigration has risen together with illegal immigration. Legal immigration increased from 3.3 million in the 1960s to 7.3 million in the 1980s. At the same time, apprehensions of illegal immigrants by the Border Patrol increased from 1.6 million in the 1960s to 11.9 million in the 1980s.

It is no coincidence that legal and illegal immigration have risen in tandem. The communities of legal immigrants formed since the mid-60s serve as incubators for illegal immigration by providing housing, jobs and entree for their compatriots who haven't yet managed to procure a green card.

Mexico is the No. 1 source of both legal and illegal immigrants. Other top sources of legal immigrants are, likewise, senders of illegal immigrants.

In fact, illegal immigrants make up a significant proportion of major immigrant groups - they account for more than one-third of all people in the U.S. born in Mexico, almost half of Salvadorans and Guatemalans, nearly a third of Haitians, 15 percent of Canadians, and 8 percent of Filipinos.

One of the dysfunctional elements of our legal immigration policy that drives illegal immigration is the existence of amazingly long waiting lists for green cards. There are more than 3.5 million people who are qualified for immigration to the U.S. but waiting their turn to receive the limited number of available visas.

The wait can be decades long - Filipino siblings of American citizens who are now receiving their visas have been waiting almost 20 years; those applying today can expect to wait as long as four decades.

Obviously, this suggests a seriously flawed mechanism. And it encourages those who've been selected, but asked to wait, simply to settle with their American relatives illegally.

The Commission on Immigration Reform headed by the late Barbara Jordan said such "extraordinary" backlogs "undermine the credibility of our policy" by encouraging those outside our borders to flout the rules.

The INS is now able to track how many of the people receiving green cards were already living here illegally. Astonishingly, more than one-fifth - 22 percent - of legal immigrants were, in fact, illegal immigrants using the system to become legal.

This figure was more than triple what the INS expected. And an internal State Department survey has found that upwards of 90 percent of legal Mexican immigrants were illegal aliens.

Legal immigration clearly is a driving force behind illegal immigration - and cutting the former is a necessary prerequisite to gaining control over the latter.

Those working to demonstrate the need for comprehensive immigration reform obviously failed to make this clear during last year's debate. But with the illegal population nearing a record high - and with more than 400,000 illegals settling here every year - the debate won't end anytime soon.