As more people cross the border, anti-immigrant stances are inflaming U.S. politics, with few long-term proposals more comprehensive than closing the border.
At a Friday, January 26 EMS briefing, immigration experts discussed the political consequences of these proposals in light of the current anti-immigrant electoral cycle, long-term problems with an increasingly politicized asylum system and local responses to high numbers of migrants.
Washington and the border
The ongoing bipartisan Senate debate around restricting immigration along the country’s Mexican border — particularly around parole, which allows migrants to live and work in the U.S. temporarily without visas — is happening in the context of debates around a bill to fund aid for Israel, Taiwan and particularly Ukraine, said Angela Kelley, chief advisor of Policy and Partnerships for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the American Immigration Council (AIC).
Given that supporting Ukraine “to effectively push back on Putin’s intentions” is a Democrat priority, many Republicans echoing former President Trump — like House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson — are threatening to regard the Senate’s compromise as “dead on arrival” and withhold Ukraine aid if Democrats oppose certain immigration limitations, she continued.
The most significant limitation regards the authority of parole, which President Biden has used for generally two-year increments “to bring in people including Afghans, Ukrainians, Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans for humanitarian reasons,” and which many other migrants at the border get through the U.S. Customs app CBP One “as a legal pathway, as opposed to using a smuggler,” Kelley said.
Another limitation regards the negotiation of a “trigger” to close the border to migrants seeking asylum if there are more than a certain maximum — especially relevant given that President Biden, in an attempt to salvage the ongoing Congress deal, said he’d “shut down the border” if given the ability.
“30 years ago, if the Border Patrol had encountered 4,000 people, that would have been a five alarm fire. Now we’re seeing 10,000 or 11,000 per day … because smuggling networks have increased and more people — 52% of migrants — are coming from other parts of the world beyond Mexico or Central America,” she added. “Our policies are grossly inadequate to handle these numbers.”
A ‘perfect storm’
“Democrats are not comfortable with immigration as a complex policy issue,” Kelly said. “Meanwhile, Republicans have a simpler soundbite — ‘Biden’s borders are out of control, everybody’s coming in.’ A better balance of compassion and control requires changes to our asylum system … and that requires us putting people in Congress who won’t use this issue as a political football.”
This week, the House Republican response to unprecedented migration takes the form of a markup hearing to discuss impeachment articles against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on the grounds that he defied Federal immigration laws by allowing millions to enter the U.S. illegally. A formal vote against him — which could come as soon as next week — would make him the second U.S. Cabinet official to be impeached in history, and the first in 150 years.
In this electoral year, immigration is more political than ever in a “perfect storm” intensified by unprecedented migration from destabilized governments and economies abroad, and by 30 years of largely GOP-blocked attempts to update the U.S. immigration system, said Vanessa Cardenas, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based immigrant rights nonprofit America’s Voice.
“We saw in 2016 and 2020 what we’re seeing again, when Trump told Speaker Johnson to make no deal with the Senate: immigration is the GOP’s silver bullet. They’re not interested in solutions, but using it to anger and mobilize their base … Of course, Americans are worried about the border, but when presented with actual policies, most embrace America as a nation of immigrants,” she continued.
“When the Trump administration, on the other hand, passed policies that did not fix the problem — like the Muslim ban, separating families at the border and rhetoric around mass incarceration — Americans broadly rejected it,” Cardenas said. “They want a compassionate legal system … but in the absence of reform, the other side fills the void with narratives of invasion … This goes beyond immigration. This is a debate about who gets to be an American.”
While lack of resources to adequately support all migrants “is a fundamental issue in our country,” she added, “those who are crying foul against immigrants should then be fighting for housing, health care and labor rights. Immigrants improve our economies and vitalize our communities … Rather than using migration to pit Americans against each other, we should empower them to be part of the solution.”
Meeting migrants on the ground
Although the numbers have been unprecedented, migrants themselves are nothing new in a major city so close to the border as LA, said Lupita Martinez, regional policy manager for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). Since the COVID-response asylum restriction Title 42 was lifted last May, “we’ve been receiving buses on an over 20-hour-long ride from Texas,” she said.
Only 3% of arrivals to LA stay there, however; top cities for asylum seekers with sponsors include San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose.
“We’re now at bus 39, and have been collaborating with the city, county and aid organizations through LA Welcomes Collective to receive new arrivals with care” including medical attention, translation services, basic needs like food, water and hygiene supplies, and — for those staying in LA — city orientation, housing and benefits case management, school enrollment and mental health support.
“When we talk about immigration, we talk about numbers, but on the ground they’re more than that,” said Martinez. “I remember meeting a mother and two children less than five years old, whose father had drowned in the river on the way with them. How can you say — no, we’re not going to help you, when you know you can?”
“We can’t talk about the numbers behind immigration as a policy issue without also talking about the violence and poverty behind it,” she added. “When you’re facing it on the ground, the issue turns into one around what it means to integrate someone new, how you can help them contribute to your community.”