The issue of undocumented immigration often leads a common refrain for right-leaning individuals: do it the “right way.” To many, the logic is simple — their ancestors did it coming to America, why can’t everyone else? Unfortunately, legally obtaining visas — temporary or otherwise — is not that easy.

John Oliver explored the complexities of legal immigration on his Sept. 17 episode of Last Week Tonight (viewer discretion advised). In it, he breaks down what “doing it the right way” actually means, the different ways immigrants may come to the U.S. as well as the barriers to legal immigration. In short, the episode debunks the myth of the “right way” and gives viewers a real view into the obstacles many immigrants face.

Barriers to Immigration

One of the biggest barriers for those looking to become legal permanent residents in the U.S. is time. Often the phrase “get in line” is echoed when talking about immigrating “the right way.” However, there’s no one particular “line” to get in, and those that do exist can be incredibly long — decades of waiting in some cases — or have sudden dead ends.

Another obstacle that many immigrants face is a country cap, in which a single country can account for no more than 7% of all green cards issued. Country caps are often complementary to the time barrier, as waiting times for people from countries with high immigration rates can take many years. In the Last Week Tonight episode, he shows a clip of a young boy being told that the estimated wait time for his and his family’s green cards is 60 years. This is hardly new; in fact there are stories of individuals dying before they are able to obtain their green cards.

Immigration Categories

Family Sponsorship

This category allows a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident to sponsor their family members’ immigration. Unlike the president’s description of family sponsorship, an individual can only sponsor close relatives such as a spouse, child, sibling, or parent. Any person being sponsored must undergo rigorous background checks. Unfortunately, this process can take years, in some cases decades, as country caps can also apply to family sponsorships.

Employment Visas

There are a handful of different types of employment visas, including P-1A for athletes, H-2A for farm workers, H-1B for highly skilled workers, and many more. These visas are temporary and must be renewed (if you are still being sponsored by your employer). In some cases, immigrants may not be able to obtain a green card even if they are approved to work in the U.S. due to country caps.

Diversity Visa Lottery

Individuals from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S. enter themselves in a lottery for a “diversity visa.” In 2017, 22 million people applied, and only 50,000 were admitted. All individuals applying are heavily vetted prior to entering the lottery, which Oliver describes as the “longest of the longshots” to win. 

Refugee Status and Asylum Seekers

The U.S. at one time “led the world” the number of refugees allowed to resettle. In recent years, however, this number has dramatically dropped. In President Obama’s last year, the annual cap for asylum seekers and refugees was set at 110,000. The Trump administration slashed that number down to 45,000 in 2018, and reduced it further in 2019 to 30,000.

The overall message here is that the U.S. immigration system is flawed to the core. If cutting down undocumented immigrants entering and living in the country were truly the focus, this broken system would be fixed to ensure an easier path to legal immigration. However, it seems the goal for this administration is limiting immigration altogether.