Screenshot of Immigration and Racial Justice Panel Event. Courtesy of Vanessa Kiefer Buy this photo.

The Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy held a virtual webinar event Feb. 17 to discuss the intersection between immigration processes and racial justice in the United States. Ann Chih Lin, a U-M associate professor of public policy, spoke on how the U.S. immigration system functions and how racial disparities burden prospective immigrants.

Lin said it is important to understand how race has affected immigration policy in the U.S. at different periods throughout history. She highlighted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — which suspended Chinese immigration to the U.S. for 10 years — as the first act to prohibit a specific ethnic group from entering the country. Lin also mentioned the National Origins Act of 1924, which prevented immigration from all Asian countries and set quotas on the number of immigrants from eastern Europe who could enter the U.S. In 1965, the Hart-Celler Immigration Act overturned the National Origins Act, abolishing the quota system and the ban against Asian immigrants.

The University has faced community backlash for its naming of Angell Hall after former University President James B. Hall, who was often cited in the creation of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act restricted Chinese immigration to the United States and is recognized as the only major piece of U.S. legislation to explicitly ban a group of people from immigration based on nationality.

Lin said immigrants typically fall into one of four categories depending on their immigration status and situation: permanent residents, temporary residents, undocumented immigrants and those seeking refugee status or asylum. Refugee status is only granted to immigrants who have been, or fear they will be, persecuted in their country of origin for their nationality, race, religion, political beliefs or membership in a social group, Lin said.

In the U.S., immigrants who are issued a Green Card, or a Permanent Residence Card, are allowed to permanently reside and work in the country. Green Card immigrants who live in the U.S. for five consecutive years can apply for citizenship, while Green Card immigrants who are spouses of a U.S. citizen can apply for citizenship after three years of residency. Lin said permanent residency status, which must be renewed every 10 years, is a significant step for achieving citizenship.

“It is the only method through which immigrants can become citizens in the U.S.,” Lin said. “And so when you hear people talk about a path to citizenship in immigration reform, what they really mean is who’s allowed to get permanent residence and the method through which you can get it.”

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, immigrants can also apply for temporary residency, which allows them to visit the U.S. for a limited period of time, usually ranging from six months to a year and primarily for business, family matters or emergencies. Lin said around 75% of temporary residence permits issued in the U.S. in 2018 were for tourists and those doing short-term business in the U.S. The other 25% were issued as student and temporary work visas, according to the U.S. Department of State. 

Lin said those seeking student and temporary work visas often stay in the U.S. for up to two years, but having a temporary visa does not make it any easier to become a permanent resident, like it does in other countries such as New Zealand and Canada.

“In many countries, people who have these temporary visas can convert them into permanent residency visas if they (have) been in the country for more than (a certain) number of years,” Lin said. “Or sometimes they can convert to temporary residence visas if they get a permanent job that allows them to switch. But in the U.S., there’s nothing preventing somebody who’s a temporary resident from getting a permanent resident visa, but you have to go through the same procedures that the permanent resident visa requires.”

Lin said half of the undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. today — those who do not have legal permission to live in the country — entered the country legally with a temporary visa that has now expired. Yet when Americans think about undocumented immigrants, Lin said, they often do not realize that undocumented immigrants followed immigration protocol when they first came to the U.S.

“I think our clearly racist reasons (create) pictures of undocumented immigrants as people who sneak across our border, right?” Lin said. “When we talk about those people, we are primarily talking about Latinos. I will point out that this is not really an accurate picture. We have undocumented immigrants who come through the Canadian border. We also have undocumented immigrants of all different nationalities who find a way to get to Mexico, and then from Mexico, come over the southern border.”

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA) requires undocumented immigrants who have resided in the U.S. for 180 to 365 days to leave the country and reside outside of the U.S. for three years unless pardoned. If an undocumented immigrant has resided illegally in the U.S. for a year or longer, the IIRAIRA requires that they leave and remain outside of the U.S. for ten years unless they obtain a waiver. Lin said it is extremely difficult for undocumented immigrants, including those who overstay their temporary visas, to obtain legal visas.

“These are generally people who, once they are in contact with our justice system, once they get tagged as somebody who has been in the U.S. illegally, then have these visa bans placed on them,” Lin said. “And that is a really big problem when we think about some of the racial implications of our current immigration policy.”

For those seeking refugee status or asylum in the U.S., the current definition of persecution does not include war, gang violence or natural disasters. Lin said legal representation is crucial for those seeking asylum but is often hard to obtain due to high costs and increasing demand for immigration attorneys.

“Some judges are very sympathetic to Central Americans, some are not,” Lin said. “Those could be judges that are actually in the same circuit, operating from the same office. The only category that really predicts how immigration judges will give refugee or asylum status is if you have a lawyer. You are 75% more likely to get asylum or refugee or asylum status if you have a lawyer, and lawyers are not automatic.”

Daily Staff Reporter Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at