In another chapter of the novel that the decades without real immigration reform, favorable to immigrants, has become, Republicans in the House of Representatives are now conditioning aid to Ukraine on advancing a collection of hardline migration measures contained in HR 2, a bill approved in May without even one Democratic vote. The bill’s North Star is, among other things, making it more difficult for people to seek and obtain asylum, and completing the border wall begun by former president Donald Trump.
For their part, a couple of days ago three Republican Senators presented what would be a companion bill to HR 2, and it also makes the process of applying for and obtaining asylum more difficult—hardening the requirements and elevating the standard needed to demonstrate “credible fear.” Moreover, it codifies the “Safe Third Country” policy and seeks to limit the use of humanitarian permission or parole, also known as conditional entry. Finally, it requires resumption of construction of the border wall. Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and James Lankford of Oklahoma say that the measure responds to the “policy failures” of President Joe Biden on immigration issues. They also are conditioning aid to Ukraine on the advancement of these measures.
But the Democratic Majority Leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, responded, “Making Ukraine funding conditional on the hard-right border policies that can’t ever pass Congress is a huge mistake by our Republican colleagues.”
Vanessa Cárdenas, Executive Director of America’s Voice, opined that, “We need a wholesale modernization of our immigration system. That process needs to take place via regular order and involve a full-scale set of policy reforms, not just deterrence-only efforts being shoehorned into a short-term funding debate by a Republican Party that keeps proving itself unwilling or incapable partners in the basic functioning of government and our democracy.”
But if Republicans’ political attitude these days sounds familiar, it’s because it’s from the same old script from the legislative battle. The script, where the only thing that changes are its protagonists, goes more or less like this: Republicans always reduce the immigration debate to the border, as if the reasons that thousands of people want to enter the United States is because one day, those migrants have nothing better to do and decide to throw themselves into a dangerous journey, for thousands of miles, that could even cost them their lives. But it’s more complicated than that, and goes beyond the search for safety, protections, work, and a better future, or fleeing violence, corruption, and dictators.
It’s also due to the fact that, for these migrants, family reunification could take years, even decades, and in their desperation they opt for trying to cross without documents, complicating their situation even further. Also, there are insufficient work visas to cover the urgent need for labor in many sectors of the United States economy.
The reality is that Republicans do not want to solve the problem, because doing so would erase their favorite political and electoral weapon: saying that the border is out of control and that migrants, including people seeking asylum, are “criminals,” “terrorists,” and responsible for the fentanyl crisis in the United States. It’s been that way forever. But with the arrival of perhaps the most anti-immigrant Republican president in recent history, Trump, the lies, tricks, and disinformation intensified—along with the barriers to migration statuses and asylum.
And then, at that part of the script, enters the other protagonist of the saga, the Democrats, who condemn Republican excesses in principle. But if the situation complicates itself and they find themselves against the wall, in previous opportunities they have yielded to Republican pressure, to the detriment of migrants. And that’s not only in relation to the budgetary battles. In 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency with a promise of pushing forward a broadscale immigration reform. Once in power, and with Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, his advisors recommended that he use all of his political capital and energy on healthcare reform, which used up all of the oxygen.
Then Obama and his advisors alleged that, in order to obtain the support of Republicans and conservative and moderate Democrats for migration reform, they had to make concessions regarding border security. The result was the deportation of almost 3 million undocumented people. Ultimately, neither the Republicans nor moderate and conservative Democrats cooperated, and immigration reform did not progress.
It wasn’t until 2013 that, after his re-election with greater Latino support compared to 2008, having created DACA in 2012, that Obama supported a bipartisan plan for reform. It was approved in the Senate and buried in the House by Republican inaction. DACA was a piecemeal aid that, although opening new possibilities for thousands of young Dreamers, it’s also a source of anxiety, as they know they are objects of a political negotiation of convenience, submerged in an immigration limbo that has no end.
All of this review of history is to remind ourselves that President Biden was Obama’s vice president, and before that he was the senator for Delaware for decades. He knows the issue from top to bottom. Ignoring that reality is like blocking the sun with a finger in the electoral moment of the greatest consequence, with a former president like Trump looming and promising to redouble his Draconian anti-immigrant measures if he returns to the White House.
Now that the situation at the border has complicated itself and the arrival of refugees to cities around the country are generating tensions, it would be refreshing if both Biden as well as the Democrats set aside the script of ceding to Republican pressure and acted on the offense, not the defense. After all, whatever they do, Republicans will continue accusing them of having “open borders.” Why not do something that benefits not only migrants, but the economy? Why not continue extending and opening mechanisms to regularize people who are here and those who want to come to work?
Soon we will know if the vicious circle on the immigration issue continues, or can be broken.