Go big or go home – Donald Trump thrived by painting Democrats as soft on immigration | United States
M.ANY IMMIGRATION activists would have cheered President Joe Biden if he had just spent his first month in office signing nine executive acts reversing some of Donald Trump’s most hostile migration orders. Mr Biden has told officials that they may no longer be allowed to take children from the arms of asylum-seeking parents. A task force was ordered to find the missing parents of 600 children imprisoned in this way. The deportation rules are said to be milder than before. The resettlement of refugees is to be expanded again. And those seeking refuge on the southern border are treated more humanely: some vulnerable people may plead again from America instead of waiting in unsafe camps in Mexico.
However, to the surprise of even some close observers of immigration policy, Mr Biden has signaled that he would like to move on quickly. Last month he proposed a comprehensive immigration law: last week the US Citizenship Act was sent to Congress. If passed (which is unlikely) it would mean the biggest shock to the migration system in decades. It sets out how an estimated 11 million undocumented migrants could achieve permanent legal status. It would put more resources into immigration courts, encourage the influx of skilled workers, and attempt to tackle instability in Central America in hopes of lessening the outflows from there.
The piecewise legislation is also being revived. Activists say the Senate could include two bills passed by the House in 2019 (they could easily be brought back into the House, maybe in March). One of these is the American Dream and Promise Act, a version of a longstanding legislative effort that allows dreamers – who were children when they migrated undocumented – to stay. The Migration Policy Institute in Washington estimates that up to 2.9 million people could be affected. Another law to modernize agriculture would provide better protection for farm workers, more than 1 million of whom are undocumented migrants. Both bills won at least some Republican support; According to surveys, they are popular.
Another legislative push could come as part of a new aid package for Covid-19. Proponents say the bill should provide assistance, including legal rights, to unauthorized immigrants who work as “essential” workers in health care, food production, factories and shops. Such workers were particularly exposed during the epidemic and could amount to perhaps 5.6 million.
This boldness is surprising and politically risky. Mr Trump’s calling, at least during his rise to power in 2016, was based heavily on voters concerned about high levels of migration. The ex-president is already attacking his successor for being negligent on the border, an issue he will likely address in a major speech to Conservatives on February 28. Even attempts to overtake immigration that have failed for decades, most recently in 2013, are not a good sign for new efforts. For example, no one seriously talks about the Citizenship Act actually getting the 60 votes in the Senate.
Then why push for comprehensive reform? Mr Biden reckons with Esther Olavarria, his Assistant Director of Immigration on the White House Home Affairs Council, that he has no better option. He lacks time to act cautiously as the 2022 mid-term election is likely to diminish his modest Congressional advantage. And given the “upside down world of the pandemic,” says Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group, voters may want bold pressure to help migrants quickly. Party management is likely to advocate a doomed effort for comprehensive reform versus no effort at all.
Demanding 60 votes in the Senate remains a high hurdle, leaving some activists wondering whether immigration could be reformulated as a policy with tax implications. This could make it possible to pass a migration law through “reconciliation”, although the Senate MP (a kind of reconciliation arbitrator) may disagree. Would voters agree to such a gasp? Polls last year showed that few people really liked Mr Trump’s violent hostility towards migrants. Especially republicans with college degrees in the suburbs withdrew. And about half of voters say they are open to resuming immigration after the pandemic, according to YouGov, a pollster. But when the border becomes more porous again, the old immigration policy will likely return. ■
See also: We follow the progress of the Biden administration in the first 100 days
This article appeared in the “United States” section of the print version under the heading “Go big or go home”.