We are a nation of immigrants. Democrats and Republicans have rightly embraced this foundational story for decades. The noblest articulation is embodied in the Emma Lazarus inscription on the Statue of Liberty. It is also true that, at various times throughout our history, a nasty nativist streak has led to anti-immigrant violence and punitive anti-immigrant laws. The tug of war between our aspirations and our behaviors continues to this day.
First, let us acknowledge that a sovereign nation has a right, indeed a responsibility, to control its borders. More than two million individuals were arrested last year for attempting illegal entry. At least 3/4 million are estimated to have slipped through (they call them gotaways) and are now living across the country, in the shadows . Critics on the right rail against Fentanyl and other drugs smuggled into the country by these undocumented, but grossly exaggerate the problem as they did with alleged “marauding” by M-16 gangs crossing the border. Some studies indicate most seizures of Fentanyl are at legal ports of entry, not from migrants. Critics on the left decry our failure to provide sanctuary for those fleeing repressive regimes under which their lives have been at risk. But it’s also true that some economic migrants are gaming the asylum system to jump the queue. Our border security officials are totally under-resourced, and there aren’t enough judges to process claims.
Immigration reform, once regarded as a bipartisan priority, has devolved into ugly partisan gridlock. One side says we need to do something about beleaguered asylum seekers as well as the 11+ million illegals already here. High on the list are the 700,000 so-called “Dreamers,” the DACA recipients. These young adults were brought here as babies through no choice of their own and allowed to stay here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, still awaiting permanent solution of their predicament. Many have never spoken any language but English nor known any homeland other than the United States and are already productive members of their communities, despite their precarious status as undocumented workers.
Opponents say we can’t move on comprehensive immigration reform without first securing our borders. But this should not be an either/or situation. Surely is it is case for both/and. The need for multi-pronged remedy is greater than ever.
Despite significant legislative accomplishments in other areas, and despite the President’s pledge to make a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers a priority, his administration has been largely inert when it comes to immigration. Early on, the President with flourish named Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the search for immigration solutions. If she has accomplished anything, it’s a well kept secret.
For years Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been sending undocumented immigrants northward. His point was that this is a national problem that falls most heavily on border states. In September, not to be outdone, Presidential aspirant Ron DeSantis, governor of a state without an illegal immigrant problem, cruelly and deceptively kidnapped 50 recently-arrived undocumented migrants in Texas. In a sadistic and likely unlawful gambit he had them flown to Martha’s Vineyard via Florida. The passengers were bewildered pawns in a sadistic game of political chess.
The Vineyard welcomed these immigrants with open arms, signalling their goodness to DeSantis and the world. But there were just 50 people tricked to come here. One wonders how then-Governor Charlie Baker and now Governor Maura Healey (and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu) would react if we were having to support the same numbers of migrants as Texas and Arizona are struggling with.
In the last session, Arizona Senator Kristen Sinema and Thom Tillis of North Carolina worked out a reasonable bipartisan compromise balancing some of the issues involved in immigration reform, including border security, the asylum process, and a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers. It was killed by a coalition of far left and far right. Now, with a House led by a dysfunctional Republican leadership, prospects for legislation are even bleaker.
Two years into his Presidency, Biden’s first trip to the border (at El Paso) tomorrow is symbolically important, but it has to be more than just a photo op. Without legislation, he’ll have to act by executive order and regulation. He has just announced stiffer penalties for those who cross illegally and more resources for law enforcement and for judges reviewing cases.
Clearly, we have an enormous labor shortage (one reason given for the rising prices because supply can’t keep pace with demand), but newcomers to fill those jobs should still be processed through according to the law. A good step forward is the President’s announcement of temporary work authorization for 30,000 immigrants a month from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua.
Troubling immigration issues are not unique to the United States. Beyond wars and other conflict, worsening climate change is likely to add dramatically to global movement of displaced populations. Turkey has four million displaced people, many from Syria. Other countries are struggling with refugees from Sudan Somalia, Myanmar, Afghanistan and increasingly Ukraine. There’s an ongoing role for us internationally, but now we must prioritize our own domestic solutions. Bipartisanship has always been essential to meaningful reform, and the big question is how achievable that will be in the new political environment in Washington. We must not keep shouting about the problem and kicking the proverbial can. It’s up to Joe Biden to move from today’s front page news to solutions.