Will raw politics kill immigration reform? by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Do we really need to arm the Statue of Liberty? It’s no secret that there is an immigration crisis in this country. Since Biden became President, more than three million migrants have crossed the border, and an estimated 1.7 million more have snuck in or overstayed their visas. The influx is now a problem for population centers coast to coast, not just border states. Here in Massachusetts, the flow of migrants is swamping our emergency shelters and imposing more than a billion in new costs on our state budget.

Welcoming immigrants speaks to our best humanitarian impulses, but border security is a legitimate issue. Every sovereign nation has a right and a responsibility to secure its borders. People are not just coming from Central America and Venezuela. They are coming from China, India and Russia. We must keep out the fentanyl smugglers, now largely coming through regular ports of entry. We must bar entry by Hamas or others on the terrorist watch list. Increasing security at the border has become wrapped in the comprehensive security package of providing aid to Ukraine, to Israel, and Taiwan. Will those pressing needs be the leverage needed finally to get meaningful immigration reform? Right now, it’s not looking that way.

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators has been working hard to negotiate an immigration bill. Compromises are being made on both sides, we are told. (The full Senate has yet to see the provisions.) Should it pass the Senate, House Republicans prefer to fear-monger the issue as part of a 2024 campaign strategy than negotiate some reasonable solutions. Attacking the Biden Administration’s failures on immigration is central to Donald Trump’s campaign strategy. As Minority Whip Katherine Clark told the New England Council recently, Speaker Mike Johnson has made it clear: there will be no immigration bill till there’s a President Trump. Trump is proud of blocking the bill and said this weekend, “Please blame it on me.”

Color me apoplectic. The last comprehensive immigration bill was the bipartisan Simpson(R)-Mazzoli (D) bill passed in 1986 (by a margin of 238 to 173 in the House and, in the Senate, by 63 to 24). Back then Democrats controlled both branches, and Republican President Ronald Reagan, in the middle of his second term, signed it. In 1990, Republican George H.W. Bush signed a bill, introduced by Democrat Ted Kennedy, refining family and diversity issues. Since the 9/11 attack however, George W., Barack Obama and Joe Biden have all tried overhauling immigration, but bipartisanship has been stubbornly elusive.

One would think today’s conditions ripe for legislative action. As on abortion and gun safety, the American people appear to be way more enlightened than their elected politicians. Polls show majority support for expanding legal immigration even in battleground states. Support continues to be robust for legalizing so-called Dreamers (people brought here as young children by undocumented parents). Polls show that three quarters of Americans believe illegal immigration is a serious problem. A healthy majority favors deporting illegals, fining employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, and building more wall. But they also support letting immigrants now working without legal status apply for it.

Partisan Republicans are giddy about metrics showing fully two thirds disapprove of Biden’s handling of border security. That disapproval is rooted in the sense that he has been too lax, but his recent move to the center has outraged pro-immigration advocates on the left. Damned if he does; damned if he doesn’t.

According to the CATO Institute, our population growth is the lowest it has ever been, and on average there are 10 million unfilled jobs at any given time. We need the workers, the tax revenues, the fresh blood to care for our aging population. And we need the technical skills of those who pursue their education here but, absurdly, are now required to leave after getting their advanced degrees. It should be so easy to clear pathways for high-skilled techies, and even for refugees from Afghanistan, those who risked their lives helping US troops but now languishing in refugee camps in the Middle East.

Our asylum system is especially challenging and in desperate need of reform. This nation’s “credible fear” standards for eligibility are much more lenient than those in other countries, including Canada. Migrants who make it onto U.S. soil are supposed to have their cases heard, but a shortage of immigration judges means there is a huge backlog. The Biden administration is doing its best to facilitate asylum applicants, but official efforts are lame. It takes an average of four years just to get to an initial hearing. According to the Congressional Research Service, doubling the number of judges would only end the backlog in 2032. Half of asylum cases are denied and dealing with new arrivals first could prove a disincentive to those coming now.

Today, after often not-validated persecution in their home countries, asylum applicants are simply released into the country and may not hear back from the courts for years. Under this current so-called “parole” system, they just disappear into the population, facing uncertain prospects for shelter, work prospects, and seeing the American dream become the American nightmare.

Meanwhile, the merchants of fear find it easy to agitate blue collar workers legitimately nervous about unskilled immigrants taking their jobs at sub “living wages,” while corporations are eager to expand that part of the work force to lower their costs. Others insist that letting “them” in will swamp the welfare benefits system, but this could be addressed administratively by providing regulated work opportunities and not providing immediate benefits. At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence that those who courageously leave home to seek opportunities in the United States are self-starters. They want to work, start small businesses, hire others and actually grow our economy.

Republican senators like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham are pushing for the bipartisan compromise. They maintain it’s the best compromise we’ve seen in years, not likely to improve in a Trump administration. They know that Donald Trump would rather preserve the chaos than lose the potency of the issue’s political impact. (It helped propel him to the Presidency in 2016, and it was a top issue for voters in both the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses.) But will nine Republicans join with the Democrats to overcome a likely Senate filibuster? And will enough Republicans in the House join with Democrats to overcome Speaker Johnson’s reluctance to call up a Senate-passed bill for a vote? Will the legislative wall be more insurmountable that the border wall? We have much to fear from what the answer may well be.

This is the issue that could cost Biden the election. Liberal immigration policy Democrats now damning him from the left should understand that blocking a reasonable compromise now will make their cause nearly impossible under a Trump administration.

If Trump and his acolytes succeed in tanking the compromise bill, the Democrats need effective messaging pinning every new fentanyl death and every immigrant horror story on the former President in a way that resonates with Independent voters and non-MAGA Republicans. But even that may not be enough.