What is the difference between a legal and illegal immigrant? It is whether one has obtained a visa before immigration in most situations. While this seems to be a logical system, there are inherent inequalities within border regimes and immigration policies. Rather than a question of visa status, discourse on immigration should focus on the avenues to social integration for migrants.
Thinking through the past year of experiences that I have had in the Global Fellows program; I think that the most impactful global and cultural exchanges have come about through casual conversations with various members of the international community at Duke and throughout Durham. In the fall, I had the pleasure of organizing the English Conversation Club where there were frequent questions and discussions about how to navigate Durham. One week we had a discussion that led to explaining our pastimes to each other. Some of the participants were avid movie fans or fond of doing housework, not because it was all they aspired to do in America, but due to a lot of them having to leave their lives behind as spouses of international scholars and businesspeople.
It was at this point that I was struck by the reality of possessing an F2 visa in the United States – your legal presence does not mean that you can work. The F2 visa is an extension of the F1 visa that allows international applicants to come to the United States to study. There are some striking provisions of this visa though, disallowing the holder from working off-campus without approval. Since most jobs will only allow part-time employment for students, this harkens back to the requirement under the F1 visa that the applicant must have the financial resources to support themselves throughout the term. This effectively creates a subclass of the population in the United States.
The nonimmigrant visa system in the United States is still a relatively new process, introduced with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. This created the F1 program to allow noncitizens to come to the United States to study as full-time students, though does not confer immigration status. Students under this designation can attend full-time degree programs at universities or pursue language study during the length of their approved stay. The first step in the process is to apply and be accepted into a school in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System before applying for a visa. A visa application does not guarantee approval; in 2021, almost 20% of F1 visa applications were rejected and so were 32% of F2 visa applications. As such, the program acts as a check on foreign access to the United States and supports disparities in global access to education.
As a means of comparison, Italy provides another look at stratified forms of immigration that support disparities in migration. A crucial difference in the visa process for education is that those with student visas are also allowed to apply for a residence permit. After 5 years of legal residence, those with a student visa can apply for permanent residence. In Italy, the visa program is even newer than that of the United States since it was introduced in 1998 Turco-Napolitano Law as one of the formal designations to control the migration flow in Italy. Similar to the United States, there were no prior legal or formal protections or designations for foreign students before the introduction of these legislations. In Italy, migrant visas for study, equivalent to an F1 visa, only made up 8% of issued visas whereas approved visas for family, equivalent to an F2 visa, accounted for 62% of issued visas in 2020. What this indicates is a difference in the foreign demographics between the two countries, as the United States approved almost 5 times as many applications as Italy. Even more striking is that the United States approved F1 and F2 visas is more than 3 times the amount of issued visas in Italy.
These two countries alone indicate the importance of understanding the global movement of peoples across borders, especially in recent times that highlight contempt for rising immigration rates in both countries. The media in both countries, such as newspapers, disseminate public discourse about migration in terms of an issue of southern border security for both the United States and Italy in recent years.
One of the biggest developments in the United States related to hampering illegal immigration, denoting immigrants that enter the country without first obtaining a visa, was President Donald Trump’s, the 45th President of the United States, push to repeal DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in 2020. This 2012 program that President Barack Obama introduced was designed to offer a form of protection for undocumented immigrant children residing in the United States to live and work. President Trump’s campaign made certain promises that were largely targeted against protections for undocumented migrants in the United States and continued immigration of this sort, such as building a wall between the United States and Mexico that Mexico would pay for. Fortunately, the Supreme Court rejected the proposal in 2020 to repeal DACA because President Trump’s movement was unconstitutional without supplying due reason to repeal the program, despite executive power. As the highest number of immigrants, documented or not, come from Mexico, this movement from President Trump asserts that issues with immigration stem from the unsecured Southern border.
Italy sees a similar development due to its location on the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Migrant Crisis represents high migrant flows from Africa to Italy, one of the primary ports into Europe. Beginning in the late 1980s, increasing migration to Italy sparked policy shifts to regulate migration. Already discussed was the Turco-Napolitano Law, which was revised in 2001 with the Bossi Fini Law that created legal penalties for illegal migration in Italy that results in immediate expulsion or imprisonment. The criminalization of undocumented migrants reflects an overall hostility towards foreigners in Italy. The 2010s saw an increase in refugees in the Mediterranean due to the Arab Spring, which sparked Italian concerns about the provision of humanitarian and refugee protections for some of the migrants coming during this period. The political response to this new wave of immigration marked Italian concerns about abuses of policies such that new legislation was introduced in 2018, known as the Security Decree of 2018, which clamped down on access to asylum status for humanitarian reasons and increased the length of time that migrants could be held in detention centers.
As if this was not enough, additional concerns were brought forth about the security of the southern border with the Mediterranean Sea, documented by the Security Decree of 2019. This legislation made it illegal for any organization foreign to Italy to dock in an Italian to transport migrants. The owners of such vessels would be subject to a fine and the vessel would be seized by Italian officials. This demonstrates the frequency of sea travel bringing migrants from Africa to Italian shores, but also the strained relationship between Italy and Africa.
What these policy examples reveal about both countries is the use of policy against the needs of immigrants and the imperfections present in immigration policy writ large. While the legal provisions do offer a path for foreign citizens to stay in both the United States and Italy, there is still more than can and should be done to address disparities not only in migration patterns but the socioeconomic aspects of migration. My time in the Global Fellows program this past year has equipped me with some of the skills to prepare me to become a global leader, not only being able to understand the issues but to take the time to listen to others and apply different perspectives to crafting solutions. As my time at Duke has ended, I would like to pursue a career in international policy, which would allow me to directly work on effecting change for marginalized communities, such as migrant populations.