Comprehensive immigration reform is being discussed again by Democrats and Republicans alike in the wake of overwhelming Latino voter turnout in this year's presidential election. When renewing the conversation about reform, politicians and the public ought to be aware of the true limitations of U.S. immigration law. In recent years, the political dialogue has been largely derailed by the dishonest perpetuation of immigration myths.
"Illegal immigrants shouldn't be rewarded for having 'anchor babies.'" This is the worst myth. Children cannot submit petitions for residency (not citizenship) for their parents until they turn 21. Even then, their parents are required to leave the country to apply for residency, with an extreme-hardship waiver that is often denied.
"If illegal immigrants have been here for so long, and haven't applied for green cards, it's their own fault." Aside from waiting for more than 21 years until their children can petition for them, there is normally no legal mechanism in place for an undocumented immigrant to apply for lawful status.
"If illegal immigrants wanted to come here to work, they should have applied for a work visa first." With extremely limited exceptions, there is no legal way for an immigrant without a college or other advanced degree to lawfully enter the United States with permission to temporarily live and work here.
"Illegal immigrants can go back home and get in line to come back lawfully." No, most of them cannot. Again, unless they have U.S. citizen children who are over 21, and they can establish the high hardship standard for a waiver, there's no way for most undocumented immigrants to simply "self-deport" and come back. Even when an undocumented immigrant with an adult U.S. citizen child chooses to travel this perilous route, the process often requires her to leave the U.S. - along with her family, her career, and the rest of her life - for longer than a year.
And, remember, not even this fundamentally flawed option is available to millions of young undocumented immigrants. Without the DREAM Act, an integral pillar of any comprehensive reform package, U.S. policy irresponsibly encourages a substantial number of young adults to marry early, or to have children as soon as possible, if they are ever to have a chance at lawful status.
This, of course, is madness. Thankfully, Americans haven't been duped by the myths. Most Americans know the system is dysfunctional, and they support immigration reform. An election-night exit poll conducted by Edison Research, for example, shows that - by a margin of 68 to 21 percent - voters of all parties believe most illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status, rather than being deported.
The immigration system is broken, and Americans want Congress to fix it. Not only is immigration reform possible, it is politically popular among the people who matter most to politicians: the voters. The country deserves intellectually honest political discussion, and meaningful progress, on the subject of immigration reform.
Matthew Green is an immigration attorney in Tucson. Email firstname.lastname@example.org