Web Exclusives: PawPlus

January 24, 2007:
No path to citizenship

By Ilya Shapiro '99

I've followed the travails of Dan-el Padilla '06 -- last year's brilliant salutatorian and Sachs Scholar who is an illegal immigrant and so may not be able to return home after his Oxford stint -- with an interest that is perhaps a little greater than that of the average compassionate and reasonable Princetonian. That's because Padilla's unfortunate conundrum, driven by the lack of any coherent policy in American immigration policy, is the flip side of the coin that has plagued my life since I entered the gates of Old Nassau.

I was born in Russia and am a naturalized Canadian citizen, my parents having taken a wrong turn at the St. Lawrence Seaway when we immigrated in 1981. While I have always been in this country legally -- on a variety of tourist, student, and professional visas -- I, too, under current law, lack any way of normalizing my status. Because the United States lacks a system of immigration not tied to family reunification or a narrow category of employment opportunities, at present there is no way for me to gain permanent residence (a "green card"), let alone citizenship.

And if the federal government ever gets its act together and passes a much-needed immigration reform, I'm giving up my legal career and taking up a profession that actually will allow me to become a U.S. citizen. Like gardening. Or construction. Or anything else that counts as "unskilled."

Because I sure am not going to get a green card the way I'm going: English-speaking, highly educated, law-abiding, patriotic. I'm precisely the type of person Uncle Sam would never dream of inviting to be a permanent resident. Unless I got married -- which will happen sooner or later, right?

That is, even if Padilla gets his long-held dream, if the millions of hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding illegals get some sort of "amnesty" -- with a chance at a green card under whatever stringent conditions Congress wants to impose -- people like me (professionals who try to follow the arcane rules) still will be no better off.

Because no matter how hard I work, how good I am at my job (my day job or this writing thing), how brilliant (and sincere) a personal statement I write espousing my love for this country, its people, and its values, I never will be able to achieve that which is being offered to certain classes of "undocumented" aliens under any of the proposals being batted around Washington water coolers. That is, every plan under consideration -- save the "enforcement only" ones that don't even attempt to deal with the reality of 12 million illegal aliens -- contains a measure that allows unskilled foreign workers to be put "on the path to citizenship." This path is simply unavailable to skilled workers like me.

As I follow the overheated rhetoric about guest-workers and homeland security, legal versus illegal immigrants, and the needs of American business and American labor, I can't help but smile and shake my head. And then go home and cry.

I'm not trying to be cute here: From President Bush to Kennedy-McCain to Kyl-Cornyn to anything out of the new Democratic majority, every immigration policy proposal would allow a certain number of unskilled laborers to obtain legitimate work visas for a number of years. As one or two terms of such a visa run out, those who are still gainfully employed would be able to apply to convert their work visas into green cards -- holders of which can apply for citizenship five years later. This seems to me a perfectly reasonable reform: even if you don't grant any amnesty whatsoever for existing illegals -- if these visas are only available to people applying from outside the United States -- there should be some mechanism for importing workers for jobs that can't be filled by Americans at prices Americans employers want to pay (because of limits to what American consumers want to pay). If these "guest-workers" prove themselves to be good citizens, they should be able to become, well, citizens.

The problem for me -- and for the mere tens of thousands of professionals like me -- is that our visas don't work that way. Under an H1-B -- of which only 55,000 new ones are statutorily authorized for each year -- a highly skilled individual, like a software engineer from Bangalore, can work for a particular American employer for six years (two three-year periods). At the end of that time, unless the employer is willing to begin the arduous process of green card sponsorship and can convince the Labor Department that no American possesses even the minimal qualifications for that job -- it is irrelevant if that hypothetical American is far less qualified than the non-American -- the foreign professional has to leave the country. No exceptions.

For those of us who are that special brand of foreign professionals known as Canadians, there's also the option of a TN (NAFTA-created) visa. (A TN differs from an H1-B only in that it lasts one year instead of three and can theoretically be renewed an infinite number of times instead of once.)

Either way, there is no "path to citizenship" -- and thus, for me, no way to fulfill the higher purpose that has long been my dream: the service of my adopted country.

Despite living here my entire adult life and career, despite my Princeton and law school degrees, I cannot work in the state or defense departments, in the challenging and critical justice department jobs for which I am otherwise qualified, in Executive Office positions, or in any other legal or policy-making posts for which this country has trained me. Without a green card, I cannot even "put my money where my mouth is" (in terms of my support of our engagement in Iraq) by serving in the military JAG Corps -- or even enlisting as a simple infantryman.

Which is why my resolution to come in on the ground floor of the landscaping industry is only partially in jest. In the meantime, if you're a cute single Princetonienne with an American passport, drop me a line. END

Ilya Shapiro '99 is a Washington lawyer who writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS Daily.com.