The Immigration 101 series tracks my immigration law course at Hofstra.
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
During the first century of American immigration, we quite literally welcomed the poor into our country. People who had been branded as hereditary peons and servitors were transformed into free men and women in the United States. One can think of the Irish fleeing the famine coming to this country hungry and broke, some dying from starvation at the wharfs. They were not turned back to death because they were poor.
Well things began to change in 1892. Congress was concerned that new groups coming to the U.S., particularly Italians and Eastern Europeans, were not made of the same mettle as earlier immigrants. Fear of these possibly subordinate races led Congress to pass a law requiring new immigrants to show that they could support themselves here. Initially that could be accomplished by demonstrating that they were capable of working and that they had the equivalent of $250 in 2008 dollars. Not really a very high bar.
This system, with some modification, was in place up to 1996. So if your immigrant ancestors came in before then, particularly if they came from places like Italy, Poland, Russia, or Ireland, the odds are they had to show little or nothing in the way of economic support to get in.
In 1996 the Republicans in Congress and Pres. Bill Clinton made a major change requiring that before a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident could bring in a relative, that citizen or resident agree to support the immigrant for life. Pretty draconian requirement. If I brought in my wife, for example, and we lived together for several years and then divorced, I am still required to support her, and if she gets any governmental assistance, I can be sued by the government for reimbursement. This is true even if we do not have children together and she is not awarded alimony. I wonder how many of us would marry if there was such a requirement in the marriage contract.
More troubling, the new law required anyone applying for the immigration of a family member show that the petitioning U.S. citizen or permanent resident could support her own family, plus the alien at 125% of the poverty level. If a U.S. citizen woman with two young children applied for her Italian husband to come to the U.S., she would have to earn about $26,500 to be allowed to bring him here. If she was at home caring for her children, the income of her husband would not count and she would fail the 125% test, and not be able to bring him unless she could persuade someone else to sponsor him.
Also, there is a serious racial component to the decision to impose a 125% requirement. As many as 4 in 10 Latino families do not meet the requirement, particularly because the income of the intending immigrant is not taken into account.
Anyone filing to bring a family member into the U.S. as an immigrant must fill out a long form called an Affidavit of Support in which they disclose their income and assets and they must submit extensive documentation in support.
The upshot of all of this is that low income U.S. have less of a right to be united with their spouses and kids than middle class or rich families.
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Immigration 101 is a comprehensive series on American immigration law for the layperson. This series tracks my course on immigration law at Hofstra Law School and answers many of your questions about immigration policy.