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Why Waiting Your Turn in Line Doesn’t Make Sense for Desperate Immigrant Families

Whenever the issue of immigration comes up in Congress, lawmakers point to “the line.” Just get in line, wait your turn! This magical, invisible line encapsulates an enduring myth of immigration policy.

Whenever the issue of immigration comes up in Congress, lawmakers point to “the line.” Just get in line, wait your turn! This magical, invisible line encapsulates an enduring myth of immigration policy—the idea that if you play by the rules and make an honest case for yourself, your patience will pay off, your American dream redeemed in a timely fashion. But the reality for countless immigrants is that when they attempt to line up for their “turn” to finally gain that coveted green card, the process is more a game of roulette than an orderly queue. Each day, Congress, the White House and the courts are all making the legalization process ever more arbitrary and byzantine.

The House voted Friday to accelerate deportations and intensify border enforcement for the tens of thousands of Central American children now seeking safe passage through the southwest border. And just to double-down on that anti-immigrant bill (which is politically bound to fail) conservatives also voted to repeal the White House’s existing initiative to give temporary protection to undocumented youth. Those measures aimed to expand the Obama administration’s mass deportation campaigns, which have already split up thousands of families. Meanwhile, although a large portion of the stranded children would likely qualify for humanitarian relief, immigration officers and courts continually fail to uphold legal immigration avenues in a way that makes sense for families or addresses humanitarian needs.

In fact, while Congress dithered this summer, the Supreme Court further botched the immigration system with a ruling that upends a law designed to keep immigrant families intact. In the case of Scialabba v. Cuellar de Osorio, the Court issued a narrow interpretation of the Child Status Protection Act (2002), a measure dealing with children of immigrants who had gotten stuck “in line” while their family’s immigration petitions were pending. The reforms aimed to relieve young people who had effectively “aged out” of the “child” category in the family reunification process, because of many years of administrative delays and legal backlogs. The reform would “freeze” the children’s applications at the age when their parents petitioned for them, to prevent their applications from inadvertently lapsing once they turned 21 while waiting “on line” for legal status.

But the Court interpreted this law so narrowly that it will now only offer relief to certain green-card holders who petitioned for their children, leaving out countless other families. Many children in more obscure immigration categories—particularly asylum seekers and special employment visas—can still age out. Those youth will join the floating population of those “without papers,” though their families might have diligently filed piles of paperwork on their behalf.

At best, according to immigration advocates, those youth must rely on the discretion of immigration authorities to determine their status on an individual, case-by-case basis. So instead of providing a rational legal pathway for these young people, the Supreme Court decision leaves them in an even deeper limbo.

According to Michele McKenzie, an attorney with the Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights, for the aged-out children of asylum seekers, including those still stranded in their home country after their parents escaped, “There is no right to relief and no way to immigrate from abroad—despite what appears to be the stated purpose of the law.”

If the law functioned reasonably, McKenzie explains, an asylum seeker would petition immediately for reunification with her spouse and children, and the reassembled family could naturalize within a few years. But in the asylum cases that her organization sees, the process is much messier. Typically, family members arrive separately, depending on their circumstances back home, which are often deeply violent and unstable. To obtain asylum, they undergo extensive interviews and legal vetting, on top of petitioning for their estranged kids, and may then have to appeal if their claim is initially rejected. “Your case could easily take longer than childhood,” McKenzie says. And once the asylum seeker’s family reunification process is ruptured by the child’s twenty-first birthday, “all that time is lost to the family through the delay.” In some cases, the parents’ only hope is to wait for a green card and start the process all over again, putting their adult children in an indefinite wait on a new “line.”

There are many other “lines” for children of immigrants leading to nowhere. In New York City, hundreds of teachers who were recruited from abroad to work in local schools may now find their families split by this esoteric legal gap – with kids becoming aged out, and legally severed from their parents, many of whom are by now legal residents.

Mikhel Crichlow, who migrated from Trinidad with his school teacher mother over a decade ago, has spent the prime of his young adulthood in a legal rut. Now in his late 20s, he has obtained temporary status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the White House’s temporary reprieve for undocumented youth who came as children (yes, the same politically popular policy that House Republicans just voted to repeal, thus smothering another futile border enforcement bill). But now that he has aged out, he cannot settle permanently to study and find work—which was, ironically, the main reason his family came to the US in the first place.

Now an activist with The International Youth Association, an advocacy group for undocumented youth, Crichlow tells The Nation via e-mail: “Congress needs to fix their mistake, they intended [for] this law to cover more people than it does now.” And as long as the immigration reform impasse continues in Washington, he hopes local and federal authorities can work out some legal arrangement for young people like him, whose parents migrated to fill government jobs. “It is bad enough that they are tearing apart desperate immigrant families in this country,” Crichlow says, “but to then fail the families of their own employees is especially egregious.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, lawmakers remain baffled as to why people can’t just follow the rules and get in the “back of the line.” Wherever that is.

The absurdity will deepen as more migrant kids fill the legal dockets along the southwestern border. In the courts, the immigration office, or the detention center, there is no “line” for them, just chaos and desperation. And the brutal incompetence of the system speaks to the moral hollowness of the call to “wait your turn.” These youth are tragically patient, because they simply have nowhere to go. So they wait, aged beyond their years, for our politicians to grow out of their shameful ignorance.

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