The system that brought us Albert Einstein, Yo-Yo Ma and John Oliver—immigration—was the focus of Sunday night’s episode of Sad Zazu’s Mildly Interesting Explain Train, aka Last Week Tonight. Oliver examines the facts of the United States’ immigration system, as well as the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine it, uncovering an inconvenient truth: Legally becoming a U.S. citizen is nowhere near as simple as standing in a line, making the oft-echoed demand that immigrants “do it the right way” a far more massive ask than the average American understands.
Oliver opens by establishing the scale of the situation: Immigrants make up 13% of the U.S. population, and 77% of them immigrate legally—as many unauthorized immigrants have already found out the hard way, the flaws in the legal immigration system often make “coming here the right way” totally untenable, forcing immigrants desperate for a better life to cut corners and fueling illegal immigration. A web of “complicated and convoluted restrictions” makes the question of “who exactly can come here” far more difficult than the U.S. ethos of inclusivity would suggest.
Those who enter the immigration system are faced with “four paths to permanent residency or citizenship,” as Oliver outlines: family, employment, good luck and bad luck.
Family, the means used by two-thirds of green card-holders, is the most common means of legal immigration, allowing an immigrant-turned-citizen to then sponsor their family members. Oliver exposes Trump’s rank hypocrisy on this particular facet of the immigration issue, noting that immigrants taking this tack can only sponsor close relatives (who are then subject to “rigorous background checks”), as well as that Trump’s own wife Melania recently sponsored her Slovenian parents, helping them to become U.S. citizens.
Employment, which allows an immigrant to stay in the U.S. on a temporary work visa, is the means Oliver himself used to come over from the U.K., having been granted an O-1 visa for “persons with extraordinary ability in … arts.” But other skilled laborers are often turned away, and converting a work visa into a green card can be “difficult to practically impossible.” Meanwhile, even those who are able to secure a visa are forced to jump through “endless costly hoops”—Oliver recalls his personal experience with this part of the process, saying he was constantly worried he would no longer be welcome in the country, and that he nearly burst into tears when his Daily Show colleagues surprised him with apple pie and Budweiser to celebrate his citizenship.
The family and employment paths make up about 80% of legal immigration, Oliver explains—and things get even dicier when it comes to the less-common pathways of good luck, i.e., the diversity visa lottery, and bad luck, i.e., coming to the country as a refugee or asylum seeker. In the former scenario, millions of would-be immigrants are entered into a computer-based lottery, with only 50,000 winners per year receiving diversity visas—“The longest of long shots,” the good luck pathway is “barely worth talking about,” Oliver says; meanwhile, in the latter scenario, the Trump administration has been doing its best to chip away at the U.S.’ status as a world leader in refugee resettlement—they’re currently considering letting zero refugees into the country in 2020—and Trump himself, as Oliver illustrates via an insanely cringeworthy video clip, couldn’t care less about refugees, or the horrifying experiences driving them to our shores.
Oliver puts a fine point on his critique of the Trump administration: “For all of their talk about how fine they are with legal immigration, this administration has worked hard to reduce it as much as possible across the board,” he says, referencing a raft of obstructive Trump-era changes to the legal immigration system known as “the invisible wall.”
We ought to be having “a serious conversation” about the immigration system and its flaws, Oliver concludes, because, “As corny as it sounds, America at its best isn’t about who you are when you arrive, it’s about who you want to become.” Oliver does his level best to make all this funny, putting that “extraordinary ability in … arts” to good use, but it’s disturbing to think about the kind of country the U.S. is becoming.
Watch the full segment below.