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John Oliver on America’s ‘Complicated, Convoluted’ Legal Immigration System

Ryan Reed

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For President Trump and many of his political allies, the concept of “legal immigration” often boils down to one common refrain: “Get in line.” But as John Oliver detailed on Last Week Tonight, doing so is easier said than done — if not outright impossible.

“Legal immigration is good,” the comedian said during Sunday’s episode. “That is a popular opinion, both among those who see immigration as foundational to America and among economists who largely agree that it increases economic growth.” 

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Oliver noted that 13 percent of people in this country are immigrants, and three-quarters of them are here legally. But the myriad flaws in America’s “complicated and convoluted” legal immigration system are rarely discussed and they arguably help fuel illegal immigration.

“The truth is,” Oliver said, “for those who want to come here, there is no one line to get in; the lines that do exist can be prohibitively long or have sudden dead ends; and for many people, and this is really important, there simply isn’t a line at all.”

As Oliver explained, there are four main pathways to permanent residency or citizenship in the United States: family, employment, good luck (winning the visa lottery) and bad luck (being a refugee or asylum seeker).

First, he examined the family-based system, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of green card-holders, and debunked some of Trump’s absurd claims about how it fuels “chain migration.” “You can only sponsor close relatives,” Oliver said. “At most, that is a spouse, child, sibling or parent.” The family system also takes a long time to work. The government is currently processing applications for China dating back to November 2006, for India from September 2004 and for Mexico from January 1997.

In his January 2018 State of the Union address, Trump said he wanted to limit sponsorships to spouses and minor children. Curiously, his in-laws, the Slovenian-born parents of Melania Trump, became U.S. citizens in August using that same system.

The second immigration pathway is obtaining an American employer sponsorship through a temporary work visa. But there are often renewal limits, and the jobs must fit one of several narrow categories, including (but not limited to) careers requiring “extraordinary ability.”

Roughly 140,000 employment-based green cards are granted each year. And renewing a work visa, Oliver said, can be “difficult to practically impossible, depending on your skill level and where you’re from.” To illustrate his point, he used a boy band analogy: “Basically, think of getting a work visa as getting a backstage pass to see BTS. Sure, it’ll allow you to hang around for a bit, but you’re probably not going to end up becoming part of the band.”

In total, family and employment account for 80 percent of legal immigration. A much less likely path to citizenship is the “diversity visa lottery,” which allows people from countries with low immigration rates to enter the U.S. Out of millions of applicants, only 50,000 win. “Your odds [one in 285] of winning that lottery to come into the country are about the same as your odds of getting shot once you get here,” Oliver said. “Basically, if you win, congratulations — for now!”

The final path to citizenship is by entering the U.S. as a refugee or an asylum seekers fleeing hardship. Traditionally, the U.S. has set a worldwide precedent in refugee resettlement, accepting the most of any country annually. But under Trump’s leadership, that is changing. While President Obama set the refugee cap to 110,000 in 2017, Trump slashed it to 45,000 in 2018, then to 30,000 in 2019. According to a September NPR report, “the White House is weighing whether to cut that number to zero” next year.

There’s more bad news: The average time it takes to process an immigration application has jumped 46 percent from 2016 to 2018. And in August, the Trump administration established a “public charge” rule that targets the poor, making it more difficult for immigrants if they don’t meet income standards or if they’re likely to use public assistance like food stamps, public housing or Medicaid. “That could profoundly change who gets to call this country home,” Oliver said, “advantaging the well-off and disadvantaging anyone they ever think might have greater needs.”

In a recent NPR interview, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, essentially revised poet Emma Lazarus’ iconic words on the Statue of Liberty, changing the most famous line to “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

“You can’t just add lines to a poem that totally invalidate its premise,” Oliver cracked. “You can’t say, ‘In the words of Emily Dickinson, ‘Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me/And then we totally fucked a lot — Death has a big, fat dick.”

For Oliver, the revision of the poem crystallizes the entire immigration problem. “It’s not just his addition to the poem that’s terrible,” he said. “It’s that what he took out is really important there: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ As corny as it might sound, America at its best isn’t about who you are when you arrive; it’s about who you want to become. The ‘yearning’ part fucking counts. And that doesn’t have to mean that anyone who wants to come gets to come. But if you’re going to say ‘get in line’ to people, you should make sure they actually have a line to stand in.”

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