by Samuel Murray, columnist
The United States needs to reform immigration and drastically reframe the current debate. The current policy proposals are inconsistent, have been radically politicized over the last decade, and are hurting those who need the most support from the federal government. When many undocumented immigrants rely on temporary and conditional programs to determine if they can reside in the nation (which can change easily with a turnover of administration), it is not a permanent solution nor even a good temporary one.
The duopoly of opinions from the major parties have failed to solve this problem, and largely have yet to be radically distinct. Criticisms emerge from each side of the other’s strategy, but neither have found a clear solution. President Obama devised temporary policy items to help those currently residing in the nation without documentation, but his administration still oversaw mass deportation and imprisonment. In fact, Obama did deport on average more individuals per year than any president in recorded U.S. history. This statistic will be interesting to continue to track depending on how the Biden administration proceeds.
What U.S. immigration policy lacks is genuine empathy for other humans. Undocumented immigrants in this nation are dealing with the consequences of inaction, such as a vast majority of them not qualifying for the COVID-19 relief payments. While some who entered with documentation on a temporary work visa may have received them, most undocumented folks will not. The cost of not having documentation in America is extremely high, and can include losing out on government benefits and at many times may lead to a struggle to find employment due to certain documentation requirements conditional for employment and tax filing. Undocumented immigrants are also required to pay taxes under federal law, but they are ineligible to receive a social security number due to undocumented entry. Caught in a double-bind, many use the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to pay taxes legally, yet are unable to still receive tax returns and many benefits associated with documented residency. Reform is needed and some options are coming to fruition due to pledges by the Biden administration and recent bills that passed the House.
During the campaign, Biden’s team announced that it sought to reform the current immigration system, and solidify DACA, among other important provisions. On the first day of the Biden administration, the U.S. Citizenship Act was introduced as a large and more comprehensive approach to altering U.S. immigration policies. This bill seeks multiple changes to H-1B and F-1 visa policies, such as expanding green card availability to those who have been waiting for 10 years and more. The green card backlog is currently projected to surpass 2.4 million cases by 2030; this bill would hope to address that problem and install a system to prevent it from accumulating again. In sum, the bill seeks to make immigration more streamlined and expansive for skilled laborers and provide better systems for employment-based immigration to the United States. This is a minor and necessary fix, but again fails to get at the root cause of the various failings of the modern U.S. immigration system. The Biden campaign did release a statement underscoring the need to address policies beyond the border and follow the environmental causes of elevated immigration from nations south of the U.S. border, but it has yet to provide substantive actions to follow through on this.
The House of Representatives recently passed two actions to further the Biden administration’s goals for immigration reform. The first is the DREAM Act, an important piece of legislation providing a pathway to legal residency and eventual citizenship for those who grew up in the United States but may have an uncertain immigration status resulting from their parents. While the qualifications are not all-encompassing, the act does provide an important change for children or young adults who reside in the U.S. but may have been brought without documentation as a young child. This is incredibly important for the as many as 3.6 million dreamers in the U.S., many of whom did not apply for the original DACA program or entered the U.S. after the program application deadline passed.
The second immigration bill that recently passed the House was the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which aids undocumented agricultural workers by permitting temporary worker residency under an H-2A visa for 5.5 years. Enhancing visa programs are extremely important for providing opportunities for workers who arrive undocumented, so that they don’t fear deportation. However, this and subsequent legislation should be passed in tandem with strengthening labor protections for undocumented workers, who are routinely exploited with low wages and no benefits. All workers deserve to work for fair wages, in safe conditions and with access to benefits – those standards should be guaranteed under new visa programs for formerly undocumented workers.
Despite these promising proposed changes, there seems to be a general lack of prioritization of the current surge of migrants at the border, many of whom are unaccompanied minors still residing in highly populated facilities. The administration still perpetuates the flawed systems of imprisoning those who cross the border. The Biden administration has dedicated its focus towards COVID-19 and infrastructure, while largely leaving many other policy issues on the backburner. While the American public can primarily focus on one or two major policies at a time, the Biden administration should be able to tackle a multitude of problems at once.
The fate of these bills is difficult to pinpoint in the Senate because the legislative filibuster is still in effect, which requires a 60-vote threshold to overcome. Joe Manchin, the Democratic party’s most conservative Senator, has recently indicated strong support for immigration reform, stating that “people that have been here, they might have come here the wrong way but they came here for the right reason.” Manchin’s vote is pivotal in determining the Biden administration’s policy, being the most conservative Democratic vote in the Senate with a history of being unabashedly willing to hold up policy he disagrees with despite any popular mandate by the Democratic Party. Manchin will likely vote in favor of the two recent immigration bills passed by the House, but it is up to the rest of the Senate to overcome the 60 vote threshold to avoid a filibuster. Regardless, neither bill is comprehensive enough to address the decades of increasingly harsh immigration policy and rising xenophobia.
The bottom line is that immigration reform is urgent and should be promoted to the top of the presidential agenda. President Biden is currently preoccupied with the American Jobs and Tax Plan, but is struggling to approach immigration. Immigration is less of a familiar issue with many politicians due to its various nuances, whereas taxation and job creation are more traditional avenues of policymaking which for the everyday American return more instantaneous gratification.
If changes to the United States immigration system are to stay, there needs to be a systematic overhaul in how undocumented immigrants are perceived, treated, and talked about. The debate around immigration should be reframed so that it centralizes empathy, compassion, and caring for those who may be escaping poor living conditions or threats of violence. The Biden administration and other political figures must detract from using the term “illegal” for those entering the country without documentation. If anyone is illegal, it’s the original colonizers of this land who arrived in 1492.
The administration can immediately raise the refugee resettlement quota from its astonishingly low 15,000 individuals per year (the lowest limit it has been since 1980) to 150,000 while providing much faster and accessible processes to claim asylum and refugee status. This can reduce the struggle of obtaining a spot in the U.S., but also reduce the need for individuals to make dangerous journeys to the U.S. border to enter without documentation. But a more permanent fix is needed than quota adjustment. The U.S. should be a welcoming place for all, as it was during its founding, and should not constrain itself to small quotas for populations seeking refuge and a better life.
We can do better. We must do better. People are suffering under the current policies that have been in place for decades with little institutional changes in sight, regardless of party.