By Starr Rhee '21
1965- in the midst of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, forming the basis for our modern-day immigration system. Unbeknownst to the American public, with a stroke of the pen, Johnson permanently shifted the racial demographics of the United States.
In the process of signing this piece of legislation, Johnson gave my grandparents access to this country. The 1960s saw a shortage of physicians, among other professions, in the United States due to the war, and the Immigration and Nationality Act gave special priority to foreign born “skilled workers.” What they expected were British doctors and German engineers, that was how the plan was sold to Congress and what every immigration expert predicted. What happened instead was the entrance of tens of thousands of Asian, African, and Latin American immigrants who, for the first time, were able to enter the United States without a strictly racialized quota system.
Thanks to a fluke of public policy, my grandfather, newly graduated from medical school, was able to jump on the opportunity to give his new wife and the son they were expecting their chance at the American Dream. So, they packed up and moved with $80 to their name. After years of working on a temporary visa, the United States’ government offered him a deal, he and his family could apply for expedited permanent residency status IF he would go to Vietnam as a military physician. He agreed. But, by sheer luck, he was never deployed. Right as he finished up his residency and was preparing to leave, the United States started pulling forces from Vietnam.
The rest of the story goes more or less the way a classic immigrant trope is supposed to- my grandparents had more kids, settled down in Ohio, and eventually managed to send all three of their children to college. It is the kind of immigrant story that people want to hear, but it doesn’t give the whole picture.
I often hear people use my grandparents and people like them as a political tool against immigration reform. They say they are not anti-immigrant, they are just “against people breaking the law.” They point to my grandparents and say, “See, do it like them. Wait in line.” To those people I say this: There is no line. My family was one of the few lucky ones, and luck is all that defines our immigration system.
It can take people 20+ years to enter this country following proper procedures. 20 years is not a “wait in line,” it is a waste of an entire generations-worth of potential. If you aren’t lucky enough to have family in the United States or have an in-demand skill, the likelihood of you getting into this country in time to watch your kids grow up here is next to nothing. And some people just don’t have that much time to wait.
11 million people live undocumented and in fear in this country despite calling it their home- with no pathway to citizenship, they are stuck in limbo, worrying that any day could be the day their families will be stripped away from them. Another 4.4 million wait outside of this country for a notice that may never come.
Meanwhile, our immigration system is backlogged and unproductive. It arbitrarily moves certain people to the front of the line based on money, status, or professional ability while telling millions of other people that we simply do not have room for them, and they won’t contribute sufficiently to make them worthwhile candidates.
To fix our immigration system, we have to stop looking at immigrants as capital investments to boost our economy and start looking at immigrants as people. People who deserve the same respect and chance to build a life for themselves and their families that anyone else deserves. Relying on luck to decide our immigration system isn’t sufficient anymore. For the people who are brave enough to dream, we have to do better.