Columnist Razvan Sibii: Top five hypocrisies of the American immigration system


Published: 12-26-2023 11:02 AM

Immigration is a complicated issue. It’s difficult to decide which of the millions of people in need of urgent assistance should be welcomed into the country. It’s difficult to figure out what “assimilation” means and to what extent we should ask immigrants to change their values and habits. And it’s generally difficult to know what is “fair,” or “reasonable,” or even “legal” in the volatile mix of desperation, political gridlock, byzantine laws and regulations, and xenophobia that characterize the contemporary American immigration system.

The job of reaching a compromise that everyone can live with is made that much more difficult by the fact that the public debate we’re engaged in around the issue of immigration is rife with toxic hypocrisies — that is, with inconvenient truths that rarely get the attention they deserve.

So here’s my own end-of-the-year list of immigration contradictions:

1. The illegal traffic at the southern border goes both ways, not just one way. Yes, people and drugs are smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico. But guns and drug money are smuggled into Mexico (and the rest of South America) from the U.S., too. Americans arm and finance drug cartels and then are outraged when those drug cartels chase hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, forcing them to seek asylum elsewhere. (Here’s my column about this issue: As the wry joke goes: Maybe it’s Mexico who needs to build a wall on the border!

2. We insist that migrants “respect our laws” and we blow a fuse when someone crosses the border illegally and surrenders themselves to border patrol agents. We ask that the government summarily deport these people and drastically limit other migrants’ ability to claim asylum. But we ignore the fact that American law explicitly says that “any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival) ... irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum ...” (8 USC 1158). Giving people the chance to make a case that they deserve asylum, even when they’ve crossed the border illegally, is not bleeding-heart liberalism — it’s the law. (Columns: and and

3. Half the undocumented immigrants in America never crossed the border illegally. Rather, they overstayed their visa. In order to overstay their visa, they must have had a tourist or a student visa in the first place. People from rich countries have a much easier time getting those than people from the Global South, and so Canadians and Europeans make up a considerable portion of this category of undocumented immigrants. But we don’t obsess over the Canadian artist who stayed in the U.S. beyond his allotted six-month period; we’re bothered by the Guatemalan farmer who crossed the border illegally. What’s more, visa overstayers can legalize their status by marrying an American citizen while still in the U.S.; border-crossers can’t. Might this double-standard have anything to do with the demographics of these two categories? (Column:

4. We complain that today’s migrants do not patiently go through “the system” as our great-grandparents did when they landed on Ellis Island. But we conveniently forget that in 1907, at the height of Ellis Island immigration, there was no Border Patrol and some 98% of incomers were allowed into the country, regardless of the reason they were fleeing their home countries. Would-be immigrants didn’t have to apply for a visa before arriving to the American shore, and didn’t have to present a passport or any other papers. They didn’t wait “in line” to come to the U.S. They just bought a boat ticket and they came. The immigrants haven’t changed — America has. And our new rules would make it impossible for the vast majority of those Ellis Island immigrants to enter the U.S. (Column:

5. And the mother of all hypocrisies: We’re not willing to put our money where our mouth is. Not every problem that has paralyzed the immigration system can be solved by throwing money at it, but many of them can. Think that the border is not secure? Hire more border guards and install more technology to detect border-crossers. Think asylum-seekers don’t get due process? Build more processing facilities and hire more immigration judges. Yes, I know that the people in Congress and the White House can’t agree on what to fund first. But, if they truly believed that our broken immigration system is an urgent humanitarian and security catastrophe, they would strike a grand bargain tomorrow and address everyone’s concerns. That they don’t do that is proof that they themselves aren’t buying what they’re selling us.

The sheer number of people on the move around the world is unprecedented. And climate change is worsening the situation by the day (column:, but practical solutions do exist and the people in Congress have always had access to loads of immigration-related expertise. (Here’s one blueprint for addressing the current crisis from the American Immigration Council: The politicians are not helpless. They simply refuse to reach a compromise because the outrage the immigration debacle generates gets them re-elected.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at