Oversimplifying the immigration debate doesn’t help anyone

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A colleague of mine at The Week, Jeva Lange, planned a November trip to Russia right about this time last year, when we were all innocent young things and hadn’t an inkling of the Russo-centric suspicion and partisan polarization yet to come. Now, she has documented her experience in a reflective new column. It’s worth a read in its entirety given ongoing Russia rumors, but one part in particular caught my eye.

Her “Russian friend Catherine explained that when she heard Donald Trump had been elected, she broke down in tears.” She was upset because “Catherine and her friends aspire to be accepted by the American green card program, which allows 2,000 or so Russians every year, through a lottery, to permanently reside in the United States,” and they worry that Trump’s hardline immigration stance may make that aspiration impossible.

RELATED: President Donald Trump signs new version of his executive order on immigration

I lingered on this bit because it reminded me of a conversation I just had with an older relative. We were talking about President Trump’s suspended executive order concerning immigration and refugee admissions. “Our family came from Italy through Ellis Island,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but they did it. Why can’t the refugees do the same thing?”

She didn’t expect today’s immigrants to use actual Ellis Island, but she wanted to know why it would be controversial to say refugees should get in line and follow immigration procedure just like our family a century ago. “I don’t have anything against people coming here,” she concluded, “but why can’t they just follow the laws we already have?”

What was missing from her equation, I think, is what Lange’s friend Catherine was worried about: Yes, we already have immigration laws in place, and yes, they offer a procedure some would-be immigrants manage to successfully follow on the way to permanent residency and even citizenship. But contrary to what a lot of political rhetoric implies, it isn’t as easy as showing up at a modern-day Ellis Island, getting checked for criminal history or contagious diseases, and strolling on in.

On the contrary, U.S. immigration processes are long and complicated—I certainly don’t pretend to understand them myself—to the point that even the strictest border security advocate must be at least a little sympathetic to the frustrations of those attempting to immigrate legally. This is federal bureaucracy—the DMV on steroids—and it can put your life on hold or literally in mortal danger.

“[H]aving gone through immigration myself in 2009 (the legal way), I can tell you right now there’s a reason” many people choose the illegal option, writes C.S. Coville, who emigrated from Australia, in an illuminating firsthand account of the immigration experience.

In one palpably frustrating passage, she recounts awaiting confirmation from an immigration office in Kentucky that they’d received some paperwork she mailed after a mistake that was not her fault. The simple confirmation—which “is not the waiting time for them to process the documents and decide whether they’re adequate, but the waiting time for somebody to wander into the mail room, pick up the envelope, and confirm that it is in fact there”—was three months, and in the end the Kentucky office never replied at all.

“The problem was either sorted out,” Coville muses, “or the mistake itself was lost in the bureaucratic incompetence, and I’ll be suddenly deported eight years from now.”

RELATED: Trump’s revised travel ban deserves criticism, but it’s not a “Muslim ban”

For would-be refugees, the process is more difficult still. Refugees typically aren’t going to be able to do the family-sponsored or employment-based residency applications other immigrants use, and anyway, following normal immigration procedures isn’t possible when you’re fleeing for your life, living in a tent, wondering where you’ll get the next day’s food and water and diapers. All told, the vetting process for refugees averages 18 to 24 months (more for Iraqis and Syrians), and some refugees are killed while trying to come to America.

That said, I don’t have an easy answer to the complexities of our immigration policies. I’m not going to end this column with a tidy proposal that would fix it all, and end partisan bickering, and make us all feel warm and fuzzy when we look at the Statue of Liberty without any nagging feeling that the good she represents is a lot messier than we believed it to be as children.

No, my point is there isn’t a tidy proposal—and reasonable, well-intentioned people can sincerely disagree on this stuff. But wherever you land, remember it isn’t as simple as politicians make it out to be, and buying into that false simplicity makes us less empathetic and less pragmatic both.

What do you think?

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