When talking about immigration policy and using the term “amnesty”, many pundits argue that immigrants coming to the United States should all have to enter the United States legally in order to obtain legal immigration status in the United States. The argument goes something like this: we cannot make any changes or exceptions in our immigration law to allow for any type of “amnesty” because it would be unfair to our ancestors and all those who have immigrated legally to the United States in the past. My rejoinder to this argument is that you have to examine what the law actually was when you or your ancestors immigrated to the United States. Unless you are a Native American, everyone currently in the United States is either an immigrant or a descendant of a person who immigrated to the United States. When my ancestors came to the United States from Peterhead, Scotland in 1775, they did not enter the United States “legally” or with any sort of visa. This is because immigration law was virtually non-existent in 1775 as America was still a colony of the United Kingdom. When my ancestors arrived at the port of Philadelphia, they were likely not asked many questions or subjected to “extreme vetting.” They likely did not have visas or any permission to enter the colony. Under the Naturalization Act of 1790, as long as a person was a “free white person” of “good moral character” and they could prove that they had resided in the country for two years and had lived in the same residence for a year, they would be allowed to apply to become citizens. This is how my ancestors became citizens. Today, they would be “illegal aliens” upon arriving in the United States, and after being illegally in the United States for more than one year, would have to leave the country and come back legally through consular processing, with a waiver of the ten year bar (and only if they had a qualifying relative to petition for them).
United States immigration law has become much more restrictive and complicated, especially since 1996 with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. When people argue that their ancestors came legally, so current immigrants should as well, I challenge them to examine their family history to determine how their ancestors first came to the United States. Let us not forget our history. We are a country of immigrants. Immigrants make this country great. If it weren’t for so called “amnesty” your ancestors and the rest of your family descended from them would not have been “legal” or allowed to become American citizens. If you would like help obtaining lawful immigration status in the United States, please contact our office for a consultation with one of our attorneys.
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