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Is There Really A 'Line' For Immigration?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, it's been 100 years since thousands of women marched on Washington to demand the right to vote. We are heading into the Beauty Shop - that's our diverse panel of women commentators - to look back at that moment in history and talk about where the women's movement stands today.

But first we want to talk about another issue that is very much old and new in this country and that is immigration. President Obama met yesterday with members of the bipartisan committee that's been pressing for immigration reform. It's known as the Gang of Eight. Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are often Obama combatants, had positive things to say about the talks.

Also yesterday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, announced it is releasing some illegal immigrants from jails across the country because of budget cuts that we're calling sequestration. That move is prompting controversy. Today, though, we want to talk about the one thing that most of the key national players in the immigration debate seem to agree on.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English, and then going to the back of the line behind all of the folks who are trying to come here legally.

REPRESENTATIVE MARCO RUBIO: You have to stand in line. You have to wait your turn behind everyone who applied before you legally.

REPRESENTATIVE BOB MENENDEZ: And then we will have a process where they'll have to wait at the end of the line.

MITT ROMNEY: And then ultimately you've got to go home, apply for permanent residency here or citizenship if you want to try and do that. But get in line behind everyone else.

MARTIN: That was President Obama, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, all saying that immigrants who want to apply for American visas or residency should go to the, quote, back of the line, unquote.

But Matt Cameron says this notion is misleading. He is an immigration lawyer in Boston and he created a blog called and he is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MATT CAMERON: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: How could there be no line?

CAMERON: There is no line. It's pretty simple. When most Americans think of immigration, we're thinking of Ellis Island. We're thinking of a model that's been outdated for almost 100 years now. My great-grandparents stood in that line. Many of your listeners can relate to this. One in three Americans can trace their lineage to a line in which people were asked a couple dozen questions, screened for admissibility and allowed into the United States.

And that system hasn't existed for over 100 years. There is no general purpose line in which anyone can just take a number and become a United States resident and then citizen. And I just believe it's deeply misleading and it's really just more unhelpful than anything else to continue to use this expression.

MARTIN: Well, if the line doesn't make sense as a metaphor, what does?

CAMERON: It's a great good question.

MARTIN: Just give people a way to visualize it. Yeah.

CAMERON: Sure. And I love metaphors. I guess maybe you could talk about a series of disparate lines. They're a collection of lines but they're all attached to something. There are really only three ways to immigrate to the United States - through family, including a heterosexual monogamous spouse; through your employer, and that's almost impossible at this point, it's all kinds of trouble; and as a refugee.

And those are - to the extent we have lines at all, those are what they are. And we don't have - because right now we've created a false dichotomy where we have this idea that there is the group of people who came here the right way - and I love that series of clips you just played - who waited in the line and waited it out and sacrificed. And then we have everybody else who chose to jump over that line. And that's an absolutely false dichotomy.

MARTIN: Well, but wait a minute, though. Look, nationhood is in part defined by borders.

CAMERON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean every country defends its borders to some extent and there is a process by which people do come here.


MARTIN: Which is people apply for a visa to come as a student. They apply for a visa to come as a visiting professor. There are people who are here because of employment contracts. There are people who - and those employment contracts could be everything from, you know, cutting lettuce to being a, you know, IT consultant, you know, or whatever.

And there is a bureaucratic process, right, which can take less time or more time. So why isn't that a line?

CAMERON: Those are lines. Many of the things you just mentioned are nearly impossible for unskilled laborers. Many of the things you just mentioned - well, I mean, to the extent - let me just give one example. The fourth preference visa line, which is for brothers and sisters of American citizens. And the fourth preference Mexican visa line - I think this is something that your listeners really need to understand.

If you put a petition right now for your Mexican brother, Michel, that person, that man, will not be able to immigrate to the United States - and I'm not making this up, this sounds like a sick joke - for 165 years. That's the line he's waiting in. We can't call that a fair or balanced immigration system.

MARTIN: Are you saying that because the wait is effectively so long there is no line?

CAMERON: Well, I guess what I'm saying is that when I hear anti-immigration activists talk about this, they're creating, as I said, this false dichotomy where people could have done it a certain way and they didn't do it that way. But people have to understand that 99.9 percent of the world has no line to wait in, that my great-grandparents were fortunate enough and I'm very proud that they came from Scotland to start better lives here.

But that was at a time when there was a certain number of Europeans who were just allowed to enter the United States without restriction. And that system is what most people think of when they think of immigration. And again, that's a very powerful mythology. It's deeply rooted, I understand that. It's very romantic. But that system hasn't existed since at least the mid-20th century.

MARTIN: But I don't think you've answered my question yet.

And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Matt Cameron. He is an immigration lawyer from Boston. He writes the blog, quote, That is, in fact, the name of his blog.

And he's arguing, as he is here, that there is no line. I mean is your argument that there should be no rules for immigration?

CAMERON: Absolutely not.

MARTIN: Or are you arguing that the line, the line, quote-unquote, is effectively so long that it is meaningless as a concept. As you just pointed out, that people who want to come under certain circumstances, i.e., because they are extended family members, the effective wait is so long that you're not going to get here if you follow these rules?

CAMERON: That, to some extent. I'm certainly not for open borders. I do think, obviously, as a nation we have the right to decide who gets to come and who doesn't. But I think the most important thing that I'm trying to contribute to this discussion is making sure we're phrasing this properly. That we're using expressions that actually have legal meanings.

Because when we talk about it - and that series of clips, again, that you played was brilliant, because that is what I've been hearing. And that leads to questions like, why didn't these people just wait in line like everybody else? And there is no everybody else. There is no general purpose line. That's the main thrust of what I'm arguing here.

MARTIN: So if - I think everybody does agree, in addition to the fact that there is a line and you say that that makes no sense, that there ought to be some restrictions and rules, what should they be? Because you referred to anti-immigration activists. So does that make you a pro-immigration activist? And if that's the case...

CAMERON: I am pro.

MARTIN: are pro what though?

CAMERON: Immigrant.

MARTIN: What are you pro?

CAMERON: I am pro-immigrant. I stand for my clients. I mean, you have to understand, Michel, I'm in the fishbowl. I've been practicing immigration here - immigration law for seven years. I've been working with the system we have. I'm not an analyst. I'm not a policy maker. I'm just trying to understand what we've got. And I know the system that we have very well.

And I am very much for my clients who, for the most part, are hardworking people, paying their taxes, raising their families, doing everything that we believe citizens should be doing. And I believe they should be given that chance. And when we're talking about how they have to go to the back of the line, I'd like to know what that means. Because I haven't yet heard an answer on that.

MARTIN: So is your argument - you're saying that there should be some rules. But in a way you're saying there are not - I'm still not understanding what you're saying. Are you saying there ought to be some rules? What are the rules? Or are you saying that bureaucratically it's such a mess that it simply doesn't work? And that would argue for what? More people to expedite the line? It would argue for, what, a bigger bureaucracy or process?

Another Ellis Island, whatever meets the needs of today, whether it may be a digital Ellis Island or maybe it's a lot of Ellis Islands.

CAMERON: Sure. You know, I'm going to be honest. I don't have a definite proposal in mind here. I just want to make sure that when we're talking about immigration we're talking about the system that we do have right now. And that system doesn't include a general purpose line. You know, I certainly have a lot of ideas, but I think unless you have a six hour block that we can continue to discuss this, there's a lot that needs to be reformed.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about some of the people who are in the pipeline trying to get in legally right now.

CAMERON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Because I think you do agree, do you not, that there are a significant number of people - the number that's commonly used is somewhere between 12 and 14 million people - who came here without authorization, so who effectively jumped the line. They circumvented the system. You don't disagree with that.

CAMERON: Well, I disagree with the phrasing.

MARTIN: The system, such as it is. OK.

CAMERON: Sure. Yeah.

MARTIN: So these other people who are trying to work through the system, such as it is, what are their circumstances?

CAMERON: Well, they don't have any options. They don't have - we're talking - if you're asking about their circumstances, they're here with us. They're our friends and neighbors. They go to church with us. They pay taxes. They're participating in our society in every meaningful way that a citizen can. But they are completely barred from applying for anything.

And when you mentioned that 12 to 14 million, that doesn't just include people that came in undocumented. That includes any number of people. More than half of them entered legally on a tourist visa or student visas and overstayed them, because they had nowhere to stay here.

CAMERON: And I'm not making a judgment on that one way or another. I'm just saying that they are here, and it would cost over $100 billion to deport them all, and we just don't want to do that.

MARTIN: So you're saying something like four million people in places like Mexico and the Philippines who are waiting for visas now, and you said that there was kind of this ridiculous number, somebody waiting for, you know, 20 years, 100 years to actually get a visa. Why would that be? Because they fit into certain circumstances that simply are not being processed at all, or what?

CAMERON: We're doling out certain categories. Our country has made a decision, basically, that we're all set, for example, with Mexicans, that we don't need that many more. I'm being blunt here, but that's the way the system works. That we only give out a certain number of visas to Mexicans every year in certain categories, and the brothers and sisters I'm talking about - and there's talk of even eliminating this category - are in the fourth preference. They're at the very bottom of this pile, and so it's not a matter of red tape. It's just that we only dole out a certain number of a couple thousand visas a year.

Right now, we're processing those visas for Mexicans, I believe, from 1992, which makes it look like it would take 22 years. But somebody better at math than I am has figured out it would actually be 165, under the current rates.

MARTIN: So there's a high bar to get in, but what's wrong with that?

CAMERON: Well, there's nothing wrong with that, but we just have to decide what our policy is going to be and isn't. And it's very unhelpful to the immigration debate if most Americans are still thinking about a 19th century model of immigration.

No. I don't have a problem with imposing restrictions and having a high bar. We want the best possible people from around the world, and we've done a very good job of doing that, for the most part. But there has to be some other way. Many advanced nations have a point system, for example, where you have certain qualifications, you can just walk in and have a visa and try the country out. We've been talking about doing something like that for some time.

And on the other end of this, we have - right here, I'm sitting at WGBH in the backyard of Harvard and MIT, some of the highest qualified migrants you're going to find in the world coming here to study, and they're going home because they have no way to stay here. And we have to deal with that, too.

MARTIN: So, at the end of the day, if it's not a line, what is it? A flash mob?


CAMERON: Yeah. Well, I've been struggling for a while to find a better metaphor, but it's not - it's sort of a crazy quilt. It's a patchwork of different ways you can come here, and I think that Americans need to be better educated in what that means. I just - I think it's very unhelpful to the immigration debate. We're not going to get anywhere if we keep talking about getting back in line, back of the line, all of that kind of thing. And I can't believe that President Obama is actually suggesting that the applicants need to get behind the very last person who's in the last visa line right now - which, again, would be 165 years - because that's just a cruel joke.

MARTIN: Matt Cameron is an immigration lawyer. He's creator of the blog, and he joined us, as he just told you, from WGBH in Boston.

Matt, thanks so much for joining us.

CAMERON: Thanks, Michel. It's been great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.