Special Naturalization Ceremony held in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. on June 14, 2016; Photo source: National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution

Biden Needs New Deal for Immigration

By Will Marshall, President and Founder of PPI

In 1212 (CE), thousands of European children afire with religious zeal set off on foot to free Jerusalem from infidels. The ill-fated “Childrens’ Crusade” didn’t make it past Genoa and ended with many young marchers being sold into slavery.

What’s happening today on the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t as dramatic, but it’s bad enough. More than 14,000 unaccompanied teenagers and children, mostly from Central America, have trekked to the border in hopes of finding asylum in post-Trump America. U.S. officials are detaining them in overcrowded camps and makeshift shelters until they can be placed with relatives or other sponsors while their cases are decided.

While continuing to expel adults who cross the border illegally, the Biden administration in January announced that children would be admitted on humanitarian grounds. Ironically, that policy change has led to more “family separation,” only with the crucial difference that parents and relatives are making the wrenching decision to send their children to the border voluntarily, while they stay behind in Mexico.

Republicans, eager to divert attention from Biden’s hugely popular Covid relief bill, have pounced. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently decried the “Biden border crisis,” adding, “It’s more than a crisis; it’s a human heartbreak.”

Now that’s rich. What is happening on the border is heartrending. But where were the passionate outcries from McCarthy and his colleagues over the past four years, as Donald Trump and Steven Miller were forcibly separating migrant children from their parents, slamming the door on refugees, defaming immigrants as potential terrorists, rapists and drug dealers, and otherwise making cruelty the hallmark of U.S. immigration policy?

Biden’s predecessor left him many a fine mess to clean up, but none seem as intractable as America’s broken immigration system. Border authorities lack sufficient staff and shelter to handle an influx of migrants that began last year, before Biden’s election. The administration also is scrambling to add immigration officers and judges to deal with a backlog of more than 1.2 million asylum cases.

Even as GOP hypocrites blame Biden for the border surge, left-wing critics complain he isn’t moving fast enough to undo Trump’s harsh policies. Immigration, in fact, is America’s most polarizing issue, according to an exhaustive new survey of U.S. political aspirations. Biden is the man in the middle, stuck between the seemingly irreconciliable demands of conservative restrictionists and progressive advocates for immigrant rights who essentially want to decriminalize illegal entry into the country.

Intensive polling by Quinnipiac, however, shows that neither of those positions comes close to commanding majority support in the country. More voters say immigration should stay at current levels than favor reducing or increasing it. And two-thirds say they are opposed to decriminalizing illicit border crossings.

In forging his winning presidential coalition last year, Biden won independents and moderates and made significant inroads in formerly Republican-leaning suburbs. That’s what enabled him to flip five 2016 red states blue and deny Trump a second term. Can the president repeat that feat by rallying the pragmatic center behind immigration reform? It won’t be easy, especially since his own party seems to have drifted from a balanced stance that combines compassion for migrants with the resolve to enforce U.S. immigration laws.

“…Democrats moving forward have to accept the reality of American public opinion and politics that border security is a huge issue that cannot be elided in any attempt to reform the immigration system,” contends liberal analyst Ruy Teixeira. “Indeed, the most popular part of the current immigration bill is the provision most directly related to border security (technologically enhanced port of entry screening) according to Morning Consult. And public opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security.

President Biden early on signed a slew of executive orders ending Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy and ensuring more humane treatment of migrants by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. Biden revoked the national emergency proclamation that Trump had used to filch money from the Pentagon and other federal agencies to fund his border wall after Congress balked. He also voided Trump’s “Muslim ban,” set up a task force to reunite children taken from their parents, reaffirmed White House support for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and called for more aid to combat poverty, endemic corruption and gang violence in Central America.

South of the border, word is spreading rapidly among aspiring migrants and human smuggling gangs about Washington’s more accommodating stance under Biden. “They see him as the migrant president,” Mexican President Andrews Manuel Lopez Obrador explained. Last month, detentions rose to more than 100,000, a 28 percent jump over January.

The surge has Democratic Members of Congress representing border communities in Texas sounding the alarm. For example, Rep. Vincente Gonzalez noted that many migrants who have crossed the border lately have been processed and released, jumping the line ahead of those who have waited south of the border for two years.

“If that is the message that we send to Central America and around the world, I can assure you it won’t be long before we have tens of thousands of people showing up to our border and it will be catastrophic for our party, for our country, for my region, for my district,” he declared.

Democratic qualms about a flood of unauthorized newcomers as the country recovers from Covid and the pandemic recession underscore the multi-layered complexity of immigration politics. Reversing Trump’s xenophobic excesses is imperative, but it doesn’t confront the deep cultural and economic anxieties that have stoked anti-immigration sentiment not just in our country, but across the liberal democratic world.

The administration is backing a sweeping immigration bill introduced by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Linda Sanchez. While it has many attractive features, the bill bears a strong resemblance to “comprehensive” reform blueprints that died in Congress despite support from Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

The bill creates a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million “non-citizen” immigrants in the country. It raises country caps on legal immigration, expands U.S. aid for anti-drug efforts in Central America, and boosts spending on technology at the border. Most Republicans, reflecting rank and file sentiment, regard it as weak on enforcement and say they oppose offering illegal immigrants “amnesty” until the border is secured.

At this point, the bill may not have enough Democratic support to clear the House, much less the Senate. There’s talk of hiving off pieces into separate bills, but that won’t break the political deadlock over immigration. What’s needed is a big conceptual leap forward — the kind of “bold structural change” progressives call for in other areas.

It’s not hard to imagine what an overhaul of U.S. immigration law might look like, because there have been scads of special commissions and think tank studies devoted to the question. Here are key elements of reform that emerge from these studies:

· Modernize U.S. immigration laws. Our economy and society have changed dramatically since the last major overhaul in 1965. It’s time to clarify the national interests our immigration policies should serve and streamline the welter of overly complex rules, special exemptions, and visa programs that have proliferated since then. Reducing the Kafkaesque administrative burdens the system imposes on border authorities, immigrants and their legal representatives, and the courts also is imperative. Most fundamentally, our laws should be better aligned with the nation’s new economic needs. Many analysts believe this means tilting policy away from the old “family reunification” goal toward making sure our economy, at all levels, gets the workers it needs.

· Expand legal immigration. Our government’s failure to control our borders and otherwise regulate the influx of unauthorized migrants is unfair not only to U.S. communities that bear disproportionate economic and social burdens as a result, but also to millions of people around the world who endure endless waits to get into the country legally. Like other graying societies, America needs to import labor to fill skills gaps and sustain a higher level of workforce growth to boost overall productivity. The best way to reduce illegal migration is to widen the portals that allow willing workers to enter legally.

· Secure our southern border and strengthen workplace enforcement of immigration laws. No country in the world permits unlimited immigration. Every polity has the sovereign right to decide who joins it and on what terms; the disorder on our border –says our government has given up on enforcing that right and organizing a safe, orderly and humane system for welcoming immigrants and refugees. Trump-style walls are no answer, though a “smart” border with advanced surveillance technology would help regulate the flow. But the biggest magnet drawing migrants to America is jobs and economic opportunity. Stricter enforcement of laws against those who overstay their visas and employers who hire undocumented workers might prove the most effective way to reduce illegal immigration.

Brokering a new deal for immigration along these lines would allow Biden to start depressuring the issue by assuaging the core grievances of both sides. It would lead to a more efficient, humane and hospitable system for workers and refugees entering legally, while restoring the rule of law and reducing economic incentives for illegal immigration. And it should fund more vigorous U.S. efforts to combat the lucrative business of human smuggling, which increasingly involves Mexican drug cartels.

In contrast, leftist and libertarian demands to lift most if not all restrictions on immigration will deepen red-blue antagonism — and expose fault lines in the Democratic Party. Rank and file Democrats, including socially moderate Blacks and Hispanics, are less receptive to “open border” arguments than white liberals. That’s one reason Trump made sizeable inroads among Hispanic voters last November, notes liberal pollster David Shor:

“Test after test that we’ve done with Hispanic voters, talking about immigration commonly sparks backlash. Asking voters whether they lean toward Biden and Trump, and then emphasizing the Democratic position on immigration, often caused Biden’s share of support among Latino respondents to decline…If you look at, for example, decriminalizing border crossings, that’s not something that a majority of Hispanic voters support.”

Fortunately, President Biden is a political realist. Unlike his pot-shotting critics on the left and right, he knows neither party can break the immigration impasse by itself. Policies Democrats pass today could be reversed two years hence if Republicans flip Congress in the midterm elections.

To make headway on immigration, the president needs to leapfrog the entrenched positions on both extremes. That will take a bold new deal — a fresh and radically pragmatic synthesis of valid insights and values from left, right and center. Otherwise, America’s hottest-burning culture war will rage on.

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