By Shivaji Sengupta
Immigration is bident, a double-edged weapon adopted by American presidents to both reinforce the age-old ethos that this is a country of immigrants offering protection and opportunity to people from other lands, and, at the same time, shield it from opportunistic undocumented foreigners who take unfair advantage of our liberal immigration laws. Depending upon the President and his party, one is emphasized over the other. For the last four years we have had Donald J. Trump whose signature was preventing immigrants, especially from Mexico and South America. Now we have Joes Biden who seems to be following a path diametrically opposite to Trump’s. Neither is desirable.
I have commented on Trump’s immigration policies several times in these columns, when he was campaigning and went to Mexico to meet with the then president, Enrique Pena Nieto, to try to diffuse the controversy he had started over the now (in)famous Wall, to a discussion of the abortive bills to control immigration in 2018. Today, let me just summarize the former president’s position on immigration.
In his first State of the Union address in January 2018, Trump had outlined four aspects of his policies on immigration: 1) a path to citizenship for DREAMers – undocumented children, adolescents and young adults who had come to the US with their parents, 2) vastly increase border security, 3) terminating the diversity visa lottery, and 4) severely restrict family-based immigration. Of these, only the first has to do with sustaining immigrants. The other three restricted them. By 2020, however, the last year of his presidency, he had backtracked on his 2018 policy, seeking Supreme Court’s ruling to DACA illegal so that he could deport all the immigrants who came to this country as children of undocumented parents. The Court, however, in a controversial decision ruled against Trump. Not only did DACA survive, but Trump’s immigration bills also floundered (see my Op Ed in this newspaper, dated February 19, 2020). Like Trump’s half-built Wall, his campaign promise to usher in conservative immigrant policies remained unfulfilled.
Biden’s Bill provides hard-working people who have lived here for years, in some cases for decades and have enriched our communities, an opportunity to earn citizenship. He proposes to modernize the immigration system, and prioritize keeping families together, grow the economy because of his new immigration policies, and responsibly manage the border with smart investments. It will address the root cause of migration from Central America but ensure that the United States remains a refuge for those fleeing persecution.
The president’s bill will create an earned road map to citizenship for undocumented individuals, allowing them to apply for temporary legal status, with the potential to apply for green cards. In five years if they pass criminal and national security background checks, and pay their taxes, they would attain “resident non-citizen” status. Dreamers and immigrant farm workers who meet specific requirements would be eligible for green cards immediately under this legislation. After three years, all green card holders who pass additional background checks and demonstrate knowledge of English and US Civics can apply to become citizens. In sum, Biden’s immigration policies are geared to keep families together, promote immigrant and refugee integration and citizenship, make it easier for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States, and improve access to green cards for workers in lower-wage sectors.
Whew! Reading this blueprint, I wonder about the reaction to it by Republicans and conservatives, not to mention the America First die-hard Trump supporters.
In my opinion, these policies try to do too much too soon. In America, we have had a history of futile immigration laws proposed only to be defeated badly. President Trump, for instance, managed only 39 votes in the Senate for one of his immigration bills. The second Bush could never get his bills passed in the eight years of his tenure. His were far more humane than Trump’s. The last ground-breaking immigration bill was passed in 1965 when many of us South Asians were able to emigrate to this country because of President Johnson’s policies of encouraging people with advanced professional degrees to come here, work, and settle down. Since then, however, we have had six Republican presidents who, by and large, are protectionist presidents, preventing liberal immigration. The three Democrats in the White House – Carter, Clinton and Obama – had to be cautious in challenging the country’s protectionist outlook.
As I have discussed elsewhere, years of neglect of the white poor and lower middle class, coupled with a surge of undocumented immigrants coming here to avail of cheap labor, have created deep resentments against immigration in general, and the immigration of LatinX (Latinos of both sexes) in particular. Presidents of both parties agree that immigration must be controlled. But the trends during their presidencies have differed. Barack Obama, according to his critiques, sporadically enforced the harsher immigration laws, turning a blind eye of protection to many undocumented immigrants. Trump, to appease the white poor who voted for him, adopted a hostile attitude toward minority immigration, banning Muslims and adopting a thug mentality toward Latinos.
President Biden must remember that his majority in Congress is razor thin. In the Senate even Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have strong Republican tendencies and might vote against Biden to render Kamala Harris’ casting vote useless. More significantly, overly liberal immigration bills might cause him the loss of majority in both the House and the Senate. His two most “passable” immigration bills could be to bring the families together where children have been torn asunder from parents; and restoring a path to DACA immigrants who came here as children with their undocumented parents. Perhaps for now, they should be given a pathway to legal non-citizenship, rather than to citizenship. They could be upgraded to citizens by a later law.
As is perhaps well-known among those who read my pieces, I am a committed Democrat and want to see President Biden succeed. To me, he is a far more humane and realistic human being than our past president. But he should not overreach. It was John Dryden, the English poet who had warned the progressives of his time with these words:
If ancient fabric nods and threat to fall,
To patch the flaws and buttress up the wall,
Thus far, ‘tis duty; but here fix the mark;
For all beyond it is to touch our Ark.