The Needle’s Eye and US Immigration: Equally Difficult

For anybody who has ever tried to get a loved one into the United States, there is one central truth: it is harder to immigrate to the US to live and work than perhaps any major country on the planet. It is easier to get into China.

Nonetheless, during the Republican primaries for last year’s Presidential election, candidates were almost unanimous in calling each other “soft on immigration and soft on terrorism.” Inexplicably, nobody, including the Democratic candidates, ever pointed out forcefully that as far as terrorism is concerned, the US is as close as you can get to an airtight fortress.

Donald Trump won the terrorism sweepstakes by several furlongs and has since sought draconian cuts in the numbers of people allowed into the US, claiming the country is beset by terrorists, radicals, extremists, fanatics, saboteurs, assassins and murderers etc. This may be a political scam to whip up American fears. But then again, it is possible that the president is so uninformed about the process that he believes the borders are naked.

On Sept. 26, 2016, the alt-right Breitbart website reported it had uncovered leaked data that 7,712 “terrorist encounters” were reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation within the US in a single year. But a close examination of the data by the website, dedicated to debunking rumors and inaccurate news reports, found that most of the encounters were routine events including traffic stops and TSI screenings. That exaggerated report was amplified across the right-wing spectrum by,,, and a flock of others.

According to Metadebunk, what the data meant was that immigration officials and other law enforcement personnel had identified 7,712 people they thought might have suspicious tendencies. And if anything, it points up the hair-trigger reflexes of law enforcement officials. Those arriving at the border or by air discover that their entry is left to the discretion of officers who can turn them around on a whim. They are likely to discover just how few rights they have when they offer up their passports.

This is not just a phenomenon from Republican administrations. The Obama administration has deported more people than any administration in history – 2.5 million people compared with 2.0 million for George Bush. And it’s not to say there isn’t a real danger. That isn’t to say there haven’t been attacks by Islamists. One database lists jihadi eight attacks in 2016 that took the lives of 53 people – 50 of them in one horrific incident in a Florida nightclub by a Muslim shooter who had been born in the United States. None of the attackers was from the seven countries the administration has banned.

About half of all FBI agents are now assigned to national security, according to an interview with FBI chief James Comey by Atlantic Magazine. For the luckless immigrants, there is limited access to legal counsel – or was until the US legal profession legged it towards the nation’s international airports in response to the latest crisis. The right of free speech and unreasonable search and seizure are limited at best.

And there is nothing like being confronted by a stone-faced bureaucrat in a US consulate in another country. It is not a pleasant experience, either for a tourist or an emigre. It is a process born out of years of suspicion of travelers, not so much because they are suspected of being terrorists, but because there are so many seeking to get into the country.

There was a time when a bride (or bridegroom) could simply marry his or her way into citizenship. That is longer true, and it hasn’t been for years. While citizens overseas can petition for their spouses and in-laws, there are numerical limits for all other categories. An émigré spouse must first qualify for a green card, then spend three out of five years in the United States before he or she can qualify for citizenship.

Here is a diagram that may make it look easy.


But in fact, for the vast number of those wanting to get into a country that was built on immigration, there is no line to get into. Migrants can come to the US to work, to reunify with family members who are already here, or for humanitarian protection. But each of these processes is intricate, throbbing with eligibility requirements and limited in numbers. Very few have such family or job relationships. Requests for human rights or political refugee status are viewed with deep skepticism by bureaucrats hardened by years of looking for scams and saboteurs.

For many countries, the unmarried child of a US citizen is forced to wait for at least five years, and brothers and sisters must wait as long as 10. By one estimate, married children of US citizens from Mexico must wait more than 20 years for a visa to become available, and Filipino siblings of US citizens currently wait about 25 years. Nobody waltzes into the United States. Nobody.