by Christina F. Jeffrey, Ph.D.

Copyright 2002 by Christina F. Jeffrey

     I want to start a discussion about immigration and the possibility of sensible and long-term immigration reform.  We are now in the post-9-11 environment and the need for this kind of reform is clear to almost everyone; the challenge is not to over-react.  If we erred on the side of too liberal immigration laws in the past,[1] we are now in danger of erring on the other side, making immigration mindlessly and unnecessarily strict.  The costs of making mistakes in this area are high for the decision-makers who fear being accused of doing anything to aid or abet terrorism, while the benefits from intervening in individual, hardship cases, are generally quite smallat most a community and/or a business may be thankful.  Because of this uneven cost-benefit ratio, the doors to legal immigration are shutting.  Meanwhile, illegal immigration continues apace, at least partly because it is more difficult to point the finger at any one policy-maker and say, "You are responsible for letting in this particular terrorist."

     The current combination of laxness in the area of illegal immigration coupled with increasing strictness in the area of legal immigration may also involve other political considerations.  On the one hand, decision-makers can placate immigration hard-liners[2] by showing their toughness in dealing with the immigration problem while, at the same time, they avoid stirring up the those groups which favor more legal and/or illegal immigration.

     Those groups which would prefer open immigration or at least lax enforcement of our laws include the employers who hire low-wage immigrants, particularly those who do itinerant farm work.  Another group sympathetic to illegal immigration comprise the "compassion" lobby[3] folks who want to keep the recent wave of Haitian immigrants here, rather than immediately deporting them as the law requires.  Many churches are a part of the compassion lobby.

     The Wall Street Journal has editorialized in favor of more legal immigration to help our population grow enough to maintain our economy and our social security system.  Many university officials and faculty members favor increased legal immigration to staff departments of chemistry and physics.  There is also a culture of anti-nationalism on many campuses that leans in favor of open immigration.

     Finally, it cannot be ignored that some politicians have discovered that certain ethnic groups can be recruited as voters, even, sometimes, before they are legally citizens.  Such politicians tend to smile on both illegal and increased legal immigration as beneficial for them politically as well as for their party.

     Official Washington is reasonably satisfied with the compromises it has had to make to please the aforementioned interest groups while pretending to enforce the immigration laws.  This otherwise bizarre arrangement is less satisfactory to the people in places like Dalton, Dahlonega, and Gainesville, Ga., which have to cope with greater crime, the assimilation of large numbers of non-English speaking children in the schools and, in some cases, people unprepared for self-government.  Many other small towns in the South and Midwest are likewise coping with unprecedented numbers of both legal and illegal immigrants.  There is nothing new about immigration--we're an immigrant nation--except the numbers.  The problems with this new wave of immigrants has produced a reaction and there are interest groups devoted to reform.[4]

     If we are still a sovereign people, then, strictly speaking, Washington does not rule the country.  Rather, our representatives govern on our behalf.  In other words, we rule ourselves through them.  If we want to be a cold-hearted sovereign, a sovereign with no room for equity in its judgments, then an immigration policy that conforms to exclusive laws and allows for no hardship cases makes sense.  We have done this in past wars.  We discriminated against German-Americans during World War I and imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II.  We did not take into consideration the risks posed by individuals in these situationsWe made a blanket policy that applied to everyone of a certain profile.  However, those policies, while harsh, at least made some sense.  They were adopted while we were at war with Germany and Japan, but we are not at war with India.  And this leads me to the case I want to present to you for your consideration.

"The Case of the Reluctant Emigrant"

     Al Patel (not his real name) is a scholarship student at Wofford College who is facing deportation through no fault of his own.  In fact, until recently the honors student from Columbia, S. C., had every reason to assume that he was in the United States legally.

     Al entered the United States with his parents when he was 8 years old.  His father, Digambar, came originally on a tourist visa, but the family was able to stay in the United States after the tourist visa ran out.  This is rather a routine practice, since U. S. immigration law permits the conversion of tourist visas to permanent residency under certain conditions.  In this case, Digambar's brother decided to sponsor him for permanent residency.  Whether or not this should be allowed as a routine policy is highly questionable[5] but it is the law and the Patels were in the process or obtaining legal residence for Digambar when the uncle died.  Unfortunately, Digambar himself died soon after, leaving his wife to care for two boys (one born in the United States), a thriving business, and almost immediately, a life-threatening illness of her own, breast cancer.

     It is not surprising that Mrs. Patel did not focus her attention on her immigration statusIt was not her first priority.  In retrospect, that seems foolish but, at the time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was extremely lax and, even if it had not been lax, she first had to live.  It took all her savings, but she did live and she did not tell her boys about her immigration problems.  When Al began the college-application process, and had to answer questions about his immigration status, he learned, for the first time, that he was "out of status."

     Al thought he could rectify the situation by going to INS and explaining what had happeneda few forms to fill out and everything should be OK.  But in the meantime, no college wanted to take a chance on someone whose status wasn't clearexcept Wofford College.  Wofford even awarded him a generous scholarship.  Until September 11, there did not seem to be any reason to really doubt that Al and his mother would be able to correct their status and get on track to becoming U. S. citizens.

     These were not aliens who had slipped across the border illegally with the intent to violate U. S. laws.  If the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) were properly funded and able to process paperwork in anything like an expeditious manner, the Patel family would not be facing such horrendous problems.

     In the 1970s, when I was director of international affairs at the University of Alabama, I routinely assured students, whose visas had expired, that they could go about their business in anticipation of permission to work, or extension of their visas, or whatever routine paperwork they were lacking because of INS backlogs.  As long as they stayed in the country, the INS was generally lax in enforcing deadlines.  It had to be because it could not comply with the intent of Congress to allow international studies and enforce the law strictly.  INS chose to comply with the intent of the law.  In so doing, they kept the universities from complaining to Congress.  At any given time, I had some students who were technically out of status, but only because the INS was too slow.  I hated this aspect of my job because, on the one hand I was legally obligated to help the INS in enforcing the law vis a vis foreign students; on the other hand, the INS was informally telling me not to worrythat because they were so understaffed, they could not possibly get every student's papers handled in a timely fashion.  Immigrants without a state university anxious to help them were in far worse shape.  Nothing has changed.

     The current immigration program that allowed his brother to sponsor Digambar Patel, also permits citizens to sponsor spouses, children, sisters, parents, and grandchildren.  Because of this generous policy, coupled with the shortage of INS officials, the backlog for legal residency is enormous.  If the law were confined to sponsorship only within the nuclear family, the Patels would never have found themselves in their present predicament.  They would have returned to India and applied for admission as immigrants based on their talents and ability to contribute to the U. S. economy.  (See Appendix A).

     The Patel's case has attracted attention all over South Carolina.  Newspapers have editorialized in their favor first supporting an INS ruling to allow the family to stay.  When that went against them, the Patels turned to their congressman, Representative Joe Wilson, and filed a petition for review by the U.S. Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.  The newspaper editorials continued to support them as did Wofford, the foundation which gave him his scholarship, fellow students, and the Indian-American community.  The court issued a stay of deportation until March to allow time for a political solution to be effected.

     Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Representative Joe Wilson of Columbia, S. C., along with the rest of the state's congressional delegation, have sponsored a private bill seeking special consideration for the Patel family.  The bill permits Al and his mother to stay in this country as permanent residents.  They can then begin the process of becoming citizens.

     Please respond to the following particular questions based on the case above:

     1) Should Al Patel be granted permanent residence status?  Or should INS have simply given him a student visa and treated him as an ordinary foreign student?  Since INS has ruled against him, his only hope of staying in this country is the private bill sponsored by Joe Wilson.  If deported, he cannot return to the United States for ten years.

     2) Should Mrs. Patel be allowed to stay in this country to care for her son who is a U. S. citizen?  Under current law, the INS cannot permit a minor child to sponsor his parent, so an act of Congress is necessary in her case.  Remember, her son has never known anything except the United States and, if his mother is sent back to India, he has no means of support and no way of getting back to the United States, even when he is of age.  His mother, if she is deported, will not be eligible to apply for any kind of visa to the United States for ten years.

     Now think about these more general questions:

     1) Should individual immigration cases receive individual attention?  In other words, is it more fair to treat every case the same, or is it more fair to attend to the merits of the individual situation?

     2) Do you agree with current immigration policy which gives no particular priority to children and parents--i.e. nuclear family members over more distant relatives?  (Read Appendix A before answering.)

     3) Should the United States give preference to those who are more likely to benefit the United States?  In other words, should education, language, age and health be considerations?



     [1] In my opinion, U. S. immigration policy has been a disaster at least since 1965, through Republican and Democratic administrations.  Not only have laws been enacted which make a mockery of any sensible immigration policy, but even lax laws could not be properly enforced by a badly run and under-funded bureaucracy.  In the words of Professor George J. Borjas of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, ". . . [I]mmigration officials let the country down and helped create a national security fiasco." 

     [2] The National Association for the Advancement of White People ( ) is an example.

     [3] For example, see Emily A. Whitfield, "Scapegoating Immigrants:  Trade Center Bombing Used as Excuse to Attack Asylum Laws" (New York:  Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, October 1993), reprinted at .

     [4] The Federation for American Immigration Reform ( ) is an example.  See also Appendix A, below.

     [5] See Appendix A.


Appendix A

The Nuclear Family: A Matter of Fairness

(Statement of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, July 2002;
published by FAIR, Washington, D. C., at )

     The United States cannot absorb everyone who wants to come to this country.  Therefore, limits and preferences must be established to decide who comes, and how many.  Omnibus immigration reform efforts by House Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and Senate Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), were key to restoring public support for our legal immigration system.  Unfortunately, those efforts, which paralleled the recommendations of the blue-ribbon Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by the late Barbara Jordan, have been amended to eliminate a new system of priorities.

     The current system allows petitions for not only nuclear family members--spouses and minor children--but also parents, adult children, married children, brothers and sisters and grandchildren.  These extended family categories cause an unending, expanding chain of migration and unprecedented levels of annual immigration.  The consequence has been a huge backlog, with waiting lists extending 10 to 20 years.  The backlog and the hope to immigrate on the basis of the broad admission standard in turn encourage illegal immigration, as people decide to await their hoped-for green cards illegally in the United States.

     Our immigration system is unfair to aspiring immigrants and to the American people and is at odds with our national interests.  We must follow the Jordan Commission's recommendation to eliminate unwieldy categories and the false expectations they foster in order to restore credibility to the system.

Priority for Nuclear Families

     Current immigration reform efforts have recognized the importance of the nuclear family and have provided for admission of the spouse and unmarried children of U. S. citizens.  An individual granted permission to enter as a Lawful Permanent Resident may continue to bring his/her spouse and minor children immediately into the United States.  In addition, provision has been made for citizens to petition for parents under certain restrictions.

     However, the efforts to cut off automatic immigration privileges for extended family members, thereby ending the chain migration effect, have proven unsuccessful.  While, it is fair to immigrants and U. S. citizens to keep nuclear families together, in FAIR's view, it is not the responsibility of the American people or government to reunite an immigrant's extended family after that individual has made a personal choice to immigrate here.  Furthermore, by eliminating the extended relative categories, the waiting list of spouses and minor children of citizens and immigrants could be shortened.  Under the proposed reforms, extended family members would have to apply for immigration to the United States based on their own merit, not because they are related to someone.

Emphasis on the nuclear family would repair our immigration system in important ways:

     Backlogs of spouses and children would be reduced or eliminated.

     No false expectations would be perpetuated.

     An incentive for illegal immigration would be removed.

     The system would become more responsive to changing national needs.

     True reform of our immigration system will require tough choices and determination.  We must implement the principles and actions recommended by the Jordan Commission, which are supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people.



     Dr. Christina F. Jeffrey served as a full-time faculty member in political science and public administration at Troy State University in Alabama and Kennesaw State University in Georgia.  She is a member of Pi Gamma Mu.  In 1995, she served as historian of the U. S. House of Representatives.


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Last updated on July 28, 2004, by Barry D. Friedman.