Is Ignorance of the Immigration Law Bliss for Our Society as a Whole?

By David North on March 22, 2022

Every year some 300,000 aliens migrate to the U.S. because of two facts:

  1. They have married a U.S. citizen or a green card holder; and
  2. They know that the marriage will allow them to migrate to the U.S.

We also get another 700,000 - 800,000 legal immigrants, all of whom know that they have a technique of one kind or another to get into the States.

So while our leaders quarrel about how many people can migrate, and under what terms, they are dealing with only one important variable of our immigration policy — the rules — without thinking much about another, lesser variable, the aliens’ knowledge of the rules.

I began pondering such matters the other day when USCIS offered a webinar on how four sub-groups of new green card holders could secure naturalization (and thus become even more active in chain migration.) The notice of the event on March 23 stirred my interest because three of the four groups of concern, and maybe the fourth, produce cohorts with remarkably low amounts of human capital.

These controversial groups are all victims of other individuals, not refugees from foreign forces like the ones we are about to see from Ukraine. They are:

  • Aliens alleging abuse at the hands of their (new) American spouses, the so-called self-petitioners; many of them causing enormous grief to the Americans involved;
  • Mostly illegal alien teenagers, all in the juvenile court systems, alleging neglect on the part of their largely illegal alien parents;
  • Mostly illegal alien adults alleging that others, probably equally illegal, committed a crime against them;
  • And a fourth, smaller, and more attractive group: Those who have helped our authorities break up human trafficking rings.

They are respectively included among immediate relative migrants, as special juvenile immigrants in the fourth employment-based group of green cards, and those with U and T visas.

Other people get to be migrants because of special characteristics: They are members of untroubled U.S.-based families or they have special skills or they have been stand-up allies of ours in difficult places (like Afghanistan or Vietnam). Members of the first three subgroups can make no such claims.

Members of all four groupings either have, or can get, immigrant visas, and thus members of all four can be candidates for naturalization. But often aliens with small amounts of human capital (such as education and workplace skills) are slow to naturalize. The Biden administration is aware of that and has announced a special effort to make sure that not migrants generally, but these four sub-groupings specifically, know about their citizenship rights. An odd decision.

I am torn between wanting governmental information to be generally available, and a concern that promoting citizenship for the first three subgroups does not make much sense for the American people as it will lead to more chain migration. Citizens have many more opportunities than green card holders to facilitate the migration of their relatives.

But is ignorance of the intricacies of the immigration law a barrier to immigration? This led me to think about a then might-be-migrant, David North, and his migration decisions made more than 65 years ago.

A Non-Migrant Decision. It was in the mid-fifties, and I was in my twenties, single, working as a publicist for a prosperous New York City ad agency and dabbling in Democratic politics in suburban New Jersey. I socialized with some people in Manhattan, all of whom seemed to have studied abroad with parental or governmental funding. My father, a writer, was only later financially successful, after Disney bought two of his young adult novels for the movies. So if I wanted to study abroad, the logical thing to do was to apply for the Fulbright program; I had graduated magna cum laude from Princeton a couple of years ago and figured (lacking any languages) that my best bet would be to apply for a year of grad school in an English-speaking land.

I do not know if Canada was a possible choice, but it was too close to home and I had been there a couple of times. This left, in those days, the UK, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The thought of England was attractive, but I did not want to lose out in the heavy competition I thought would be there; I did not want to go to South Africa because of its racial policies. This left Australia, which I would have preferred, and New Zealand. I opted for the latter as having less competition than the former. I filed for and got accepted in New Zealand.

Shortly after arriving in that wonderful country, I learned something I had not known earlier: There were 12 Fulbright slots set aside in New Zealand and seven U.S. applicants for the 12 slots. Our delegation was rounded out with Laura, who (without a word of Danish) wanted to study dairy cows in Denmark — someone persuaded her to file for New Zealand, where the people, if not the cows, spoke English.

Had I known more about the level of competition in the system, I would have applied for Australia; hence my ignorance caused me to be a nonimmigrant in New Zealand, not Australia.

A Migration Decision. I became a grad student at what was then Victoria University College in Wellington and soon met a Kiwi college grad and a member of the nation’s first graduate class in library science, Merelle. I was hopelessly in love with her and she was at least very fond of me.

We talked about marriage, but there were two problems: I figured, given New Zealand’s migration laws that I could not get admitted to the country as a worker. She, on the other hand, was reluctant to leave her country. I was pretty sure that the fairly new United Nations could hire her as a librarian, but she did not want that even though it worked with the U.S. immigration law.

I knew that my old job at the ad agency was waiting for me and that I wanted to continue in Democratic politics.

It never occurred to me — knowing little about immigration in those days — that Merelle and I could marry in New Zealand, and that I would then have been able to compete in the local labor market. Hence I returned to the States, alone.

In other words, ignorance prevailed, and I did not migrate to New Zealand just as my earlier ignorance of the Fulbright system led me to New Zealand in the first place. Thus I made two migration decisions in a single year, both based on less than complete knowledge.

Was my situation unique? I doubt it. Perhaps we, in the U.S., would have even more migration than we do now if more aliens knew more about our immigration system. And if so, what should be done with that knowledge (of the sometimes utility of ignorance)?