As the word “Grexit” has resurfaced over the past couple of months, indicating the latest speculation that Greece might leave the Eurozone or be ousted from it, another phenomenon likely to endure for the foreseeable future regardless of Greece’s Euro position is “Grexodus”: the immigration of Greeks, in hopes of a more stable and promising future, to the United States and other parts of the world.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which shortly after 9/11 became the government agency responsible for immigration to the United States, displacing the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), U.S. “Grimmigration” has grown consistently if not overwhelmingly over the past five years, coinciding with the onset and persistence of the Greek crisis.
To understand the nature of the recent Grexodus to America, it is important to know what the various categories of immigration are, according to U.S. law. Persons who have come to the United States from other countries are often, erroneously all referred to as “immigrants,” when U.S. Immigration Law clearly defines an “immigrant” as someone who has been granted lawful permanent residence (commonly known as having a “green card”). Such persons may then opt to become U.S. citizens at a later date – the window of time they must wait between being Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs) and citizens depending on the nature of their LPR status (i.e., whether it was based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or through some other manner, such as employer sponsorship).
Moreover, anyone actually present in the United States who is not a citizen – either natural-born or naturalized – is by law defined as an “alien,” even though many – including politicians and members of the press – shy away from using that term, considering it derogatory. Aliens are either legal – meaning they are currently authorized to be here – or illegal, which means they are not. Illegal aliens either were illegal from the start – such as those who snuck across the border from Canada or Mexico, or jumped ship when docking in the United States from a foreign port – or entered the U.S. lawfully but subsequently became illegal by staying beyond their authorized time. Such examples might include those who entered the U.S. on student visas, subsequently dropped out of school, but never left the country. They might, in fact, have a job at the moment, “off the books.”
As for legal aliens, they are either nonimmigrants or immigrants. If and when LPRs exercise their option to become American citizens and are granted such status – they are no longer aliens: they are now U.S. citizens that have almost all of the rights that their natural-born counterparts have (with rare exception: for instance, they cannot become president of the United States).
Beginning with nonimmigrants, there has been a slow and steady rise among Greeks lawfully admitted to the United States on a temporary basis – whatever the reason. In 2013, the more recent year in which the DHS has provided full statistics, 81,400 persons from Greece were admitted into the United States legally. As compared to 2004, the number was 60,810. In the 10-year period, then, the number of Greeks admitted to the United States temporarily rose 35 percent.
What is not captured in those statistics, however, is how many of those Greeks intended to remain in the United States permanently, versus those who actually planned to honor the temporary nature of their status. For instance, among the 81+ thousand in 2013 are Greeks who may have come over for a relative’s wedding, a Christmas holiday celebration, or even to perform in a concert or take part in an athletic event. It also includes those who are here on a long-term temporary basis: such as college students who, as long as they remain in good standing, conceivably can stay up to 15 years (if, say, they enroll in undergraduate studies, then go on to medical school and a post-graduate residency). It also includes long-term temporary workers, who might be part of a multinational corporation’s multiyear project based in the United States.
What is unknown is how many of these 81+ thousand have remained illegally, either as a premeditated strategy or as an adaptation to unforeseen circumstances: such as, an original intent to study in the U.S. but the family’s finances back in Greece devastated by the crisis forcing the action of dropping out of college and getting a job.
By working “off the books,” such aliens provide an immense benefit to their employers: good quality work in abundance, sub-minimum wage rate of pay, no benefits, and no legal recourse for damages (such as a workplace injury). In turn, they have the ability to earn a living and send money back to their families in Greece.
Quite tellingly, in 2013 only 3,331 of those 81,400, or 4 percent, were specifically admitted as temporary workers, according to the number of I-94s (admission documents) reported by DHS. Purportedly, then, 96 percent of the remainder were visitors or students. But students and others are permitted to work on a limited basis as well. Of course, some might be asylees – although that would be rare in Greece (such situations are usually when the individual can demonstrate a real danger to his or her life or well-being as a result of political position or affiliation). The relatives of employees of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, for instance, might have a good case for asylum.
There is also a subcategory of temporary workers reserved for those identified to have “extraordinary ability.” That is an easy shortcut to gaining U.S. admission. It is reserved for those who are top in their fields. For instance, if Yiannis Parios wanted to come to the United States for a concert, he would certainly qualify – as one of Greece’s all-time well-known and bestselling singers. But there were only 449 of those issued in 2013. They are not limited to celebrities: they include scientists, mathematicians, engineers, doctors, academics. The question is: why aren’t more outstanding Greeks seeking entry into the United States? Because if they are truly qualified under the standards, the rate of admission under those circumstances is quite favorable. Overall, Greeks lawfully entering the United States on a temporary basis has steadily risen over the past five years – coinciding with the Greek crisis: 75,426 (2009), 79,719 (2010), 84,380 (2011), 79,010 (2012), and 81,400 (2013).
Turning next to immigrants, 1,526 Greeks were granted LPR status in 2013, a rise from 966, 1196, and 1264 in the previous three years, and more than a 20 percent rise from the average of about 1200 per year from 2000 to 2009. The biggest waves of immigration where during the Balkan Wars era (roughly 1900-1920) and the 1970s. There were a staggering 18,000 per year who immigrated to the U.S. at that time. And in the Seventies, also a period of political instability in Greece, about 10,000 Greeks per year got their American “green cards.”
By comparison, it is much more difficult to obtain status that is permanent rather than temporary. Much like it is easier to gain permission to visit Central Park than to be given the deed to it. There is also a long waitlist to be granted LPR status, particularly for relatives of U.S. citizens who are not spouses (such as brother and sisters).
As for naturalization, there has been a slow but steady increase over the past five years in terms of Greeks becoming American citizens every year. From 800 in 2010 to almost 1000 now. The advantage of American citizenship over mere LPR status is that citizens can live abroad for as long as they like without fear of losing their citizenship. LPRs, however, who leave the U.S. to return to Greece for any significant period risk losing their immigration privileges altogether.
APPLES TO APPLES
To the extent that the Grexodus to America was brought on by the Eurozone crisis, how did four of the other Euro countries that, like Greece, were significantly affected, fare in their own citizens’ leaving for the United States?
Of those four – Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland – Italy has roughly 5.5 times as many people as does Greece, Spain about 4.5 times, Portugal has roughly the same, and Ireland has about half. Yet more than a million Italians a year are admitted to the U.S. temporarily, easily 10 times as many as Greeks. More than 10 times as many Spaniards are, too. The Portuguese are coming over as nonimmigrants at twice the rate, and the Irish, only half in number as compared to Greeks, are arriving seven times as much.
Surprisingly, the statistics reveal a much different story when it comes to Legal Permanent Residents. Italy and Spain yield only about twice as many LPRs each year as Greece even though their overall populations far exceed that ratio, and Portugal has only about 60 percent as many as equally-populous Greece. Only Ireland has a better ratio, with slightly more LPRs per year and only half as many people as Greece.
Historically, most immigrants to the United States came from England, Germany, Ireland, and Italy. Not surprisingly, then, those countries have more immigrants with longstanding roots in the United States, and thus better able to assist in sponsoring relatives from their respective homelands to immigrate here.
While these statistics raise more questions than they answer, and do not even address another important component – where else Greeks are immigrating to, other than to the U.S. – there is enough of a pattern to indicate that while the new American Grexodus is not nearly the wave it was in the early 1900s or in the 1970s, both of those phenomena correlated to political instability – and that begs the question: are we headed for another big wave?