If you've ever had the misfortune of listening to Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio—last caught pledging to do a "sweep" for undocumented immigrants the instant the new Arizona law goes into effect—you might be forgiven for assuming that he was anti-immigrant.
But don't worry—Joe Arpaio isn't really anti-immigrant. He's just anti-illegal immigrant, as he hastens to explain:
"My mother and father came from Italy legally and made a good life for themselves. They worked hard but they were here legally. I have no problems with people coming into the U.S. to become citizens, that's what made this country great, but you must come into the country legally -- not illegally."
Ah, the wonders of legal immigration.
It turns out that Arpaio's dad, a native of Lacedonia, Italy, came to the United States via Ellis Island in 1923. Fortunately for him, he came in 1923, because just a year later Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, one of the most appalling and xenophobic acts in its history. The Act of 1924 was the first permanent limitation on immigration to the United States, the direct ancestor of our current system—and, by design, it made legal immigration by most Italians virtually impossible.
Congress had already passed the "Emergency Quota Act" in 1921, which limited immigration from any country to 3% of its current nationals in the United States. The 1924 act was visibly harsher, pushing the ratio down to 2%. But the new law also made a subtler change: it redefined the relevant population by using the census results from 1890, not 1920. Why? Because 1890, you see, was before Southern and Eastern Europeans began coming to America in large numbers. Before there were so many Italians...
Nicola Arpaio was a very lucky man.
Now imagine that a young Mexican laborer wants to come to the United States, much as the elder Arpaio did. Like the 22-year old Arpaio, he doesn't have immediate family in the United States (the route for almost all legal immigrants from Mexico), or possess any special education or skills. How can he immigrate legally?
The diversity visa lottery doesn't apply; Mexico sends too many family-based immigrants to qualify. The H-2A and H-2B temporary worker visas allow laborers to come for a few years, but sends them back afterward, never offering any path to permanent residence. Meanwhile, lacking advanced education or training in a skilled occupation, our aspiring immigrant is ineligible for every type of employment-based green card but one: the "other workers" subcategory of the EB-3 visa.
The fact that the worldwide cap for these "other workers" is 5000 each year might seem discouraging enough. But there is another complication. Through mid-2001, undocumented immigrants in the United States were allowed to apply to adjust their status to either a family or employment-based green card. This was a good policy in principle, of course—undocumented workers should have the opportunity to right their status. Congress, however, didn't adjust the total number of green cards to meet this new source of demand. Predictably, the waiting list for other workers has been backlogged at 2001 ever since.
This also means that only a fraction of the green cards in this category are given to new, legal immigrants. Indeed, from the State Department Visa Office's report for fiscal year 2009, we can determine exactly how many "other workers" green cards were given to residents of Mexico, rather than immigrants already in the United States adjusting their status.
The answer? 23.
You have to hand it to Joe Arpaio. Yes, his father legally immigrated to the United States—just one year before the force of anti-Italian bigotry made it almost impossible for his countrymen to follow. And now, if a young Mexican resembling Nicola Arpaio wants to come to the United States, Joe's response is that he should stay in Mexico, get in line, and hope that he's one of the lucky 23 granted passage from a country of 110 million.
After all, he wouldn't want to be illegal.