With the Republican Party in such a chaotic state as evidenced by the recent battle over who will be Speaker, and the surreal saga surrounding George Santos, it is hard to predict how a Republican Congress will behave, and who will end up as their nominee for President. But as evidenced by the first “investigation” and hearings convened by the now Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee—chaired by bomb-thrower Rep. Jim Jordan—around President Biden’s handling of the Southern border, it is a sure thing that immigration will remain one of their favored wedge issues.
Whether the President addresses it or not at his State of the Union message, you can bet the Republican responder will. Republican leaders trip over themselves in their eagerness to “own the libs” and excite resentment at the “woke” left.
Efforts like those by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to fly Venezuelan migrants (many of them asylum-seekers) to the progressive Democratic island of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., as well as busing migrants to Democratic cities of Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. (including to the residence of Vice-President Harris) are likely to continue so long as the actions breed continuous rewards on the right and the outrageousness of these actions is obscured by the fog of bitter partisan divides. In fact, Gov. DeSantis recently renewed his $12 million request for state budget funds for such purposes.
Underneath the cynical gamesmanship that treat migrants as mere props in the immigration debate—instead of as human beings and families desperately seeking freedom and opportunity, fleeing oppression, and pursuing the same American Dream as prior generations—is a false belief that immigration is an intractable problem that will plague the U.S. until draconian anti-immigrant policies (building a wall and shutting the border down, among other motions) are enacted.
Trump’s defeat and stronger than projected midterm performances by Democrats suggest that anti-immigrant cynicism is misplaced and a fundamental misread of American sentiments on immigration. Rather than feeling stymied by immigration as a political bogeyman, politicians can actually flip the script and make immigration a winning issue by pursuing real, common sense solutions to our immigration woes that are supported by large majorities of the voting public.
There are a number of solutions to immigration policy problems that have historically attracted bipartisan support—ranging from support for the so-called “Dreamers,” immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, expanding pathways high-skill immigrants and startup founders that our businesses and economy desperately need, and providing clearer pathways for our allies fleeing war and persecution in Afghanistan and Ukraine. Developing a clear and concrete position on immigration that actually solves problems and that draws significant public majority support is the surest way of winning the issue in the medium-term and long run, including in the context of the upcoming presidential campaign. which likely will feature competing Republicans eager to play to and stoke Americans’ fear of immigrants.
The callous political stunts involved in every act of shipping migrants to other areas of the country pinpoint everything that’s wrong with the politics of immigration. They only confirm the fact that Governors Abbott and DeSantis don’t really want to solve the problems of a long-broken immigration system, but rather hope to keep drawing attention to the issue and hang the “migrant invasion” albatross around Democratic politician’s necks. These actions certainly don’t belie a legitimate effort to discuss whether current immigration policy needs fixing, and, if so, how to go about it.
The reality is that far from being divided, a solid American majority supports all the core elements of common-sense comprehensive immigration reform and has for some time. An October 2022 poll by fwd.us documents massive support for legislation that would create an earned path to citizenship for Dreamers and secure our southern border by a 50-point margin (71% support/21% oppose). This includes 58% support among Republican voters. Such polling results are affirmed by numerous other polls including a November 2022 CBS poll focusing on voters in key swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It is time for leaders on both sides to stop being outraged—Democrats over the latest stunts of bussing migrants to northern cities and Republicans over any increase in border traffic—and start promoting the solutions that most Americans support.
Advocates for more robust immigration policy also have to get serious about the politics of immigration, learning how to talk about immigrants and immigration in a manner that doesn’t enhance political opposition to policy reform, but that builds support for it. Rather than expressing outrage, those serious about immigration solutions need to diminish the demagoguery that is the current immigration debate. The debate needs to be framed to reveal and reflect the strong consensus majority view on the issue which can help it to politically carry and keep the day.
The immigration debate could unfold similarly to the contentious debate over health care in this country over recent decades. Understanding the broad dissatisfaction with a health care system in the 2000s plagued by double-digit inflationary costs and tens of millions of uninsured, President Obama and the Democrat Congress moved forward with historic health care reforms (dubbed Obamacare) based on core principles of reform. While Republicans misrepresented and demagogued the issue to massive midterm victories, good policy won out. Republicans could never muster the votes to repeal policies which seemingly stemmed rapidly rising costs and that covered tens of millions. The lesson of health care is that good policy can win in the end. It’s not inconceivable that action on comprehensive immigration reform that is balanced sensible—similar to the actions to address the health care crisis through the Affordable Care Act—could make immigration a winning issue for politicians that move forward on the issue.
In fact, many Americans are concerned about immigration problems—most notably the seemingly endless flow of migrants at the southern border—and they want something done about it. By insisting on enforcing immigration laws and fair treatment for all and stepping up to actually fix the problem, immigration advocates can put the anti-immigrant, xenophobic crowd on the defensive.
Advocates must develop messaging that avoids putting immigrants on a pedestal, and that builds support for immigration reform for the promise it provides to our nation’s and local community’s economic prosperity. Comprehensive immigration reform and advocacy must be rooted in values of fairness, security, freedom, and opportunity. Messages rooted in outrage at anti-immigrant gamesmanship or that calls for open borders or “sanctuary cities,” which (as noble and moral as the policy is designed to be) is heard by many Americans as granting special treatment for undocumented entrants, and as fostering a spirit that rewards rule breakers.
The current system is broken and doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for border communities that feel the chaos and that have to deal with the newcomers. It doesn’t work for those seeking refuge and fleeing persecution, natural disasters ,and war. Nor does the system work for those looking for freedom and opportunity in America. And it certainly doesn’t work to help America be more economically competitive.
Pro-immigration advocates should lead with comprehensive immigration reform as a way to restore order to our immigration system. In fact, bipartisan majorities exist for key elements of immigration reform that include:
A pathway to citizenship for immigrants already here
We must provide a means for immigrant adults who have labored in the U.S., paid taxes, and otherwise contributed to our nation to emerge from the shadows and join the formal economy. Particularly, strong support is seen for those that are doing essential jobs, as well as jobs others don’t want to do: nurses, elder care, farm workers, and meatpackers to name a few. If we did allow immigrants to help fill these jobs, it would actually help diminish one of today’s top concerns: inflation. Employing immigrant communities reduces inflationary pressures as critical workers in short supply drive up wages in key sectors, and further tie up supply chains.
A pathway to citizenship for those brought to the U.S. as children
Millions of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, or “Dreamers,” are already making contributions to our society as workers, taxpayers, and solid citizens. Beyond DACA-eligible residents, immigration reform should provide a pathway to citizenship for “documented dreamers.” These are children of the foreign workers that have legally admitted to the U.S. on temporary work visas, such as the H-1B visa used by skilled technology workers. Documented Dreamers lose their legal status upon turning 21 despite being welcomed at the time of their entrance to the country. Nearly a quarter million children who grew up while legally residing in the U.S. now face deportation upon turning 21, despite being educated here In the U.S. and having little, if any, knowledge of or connection to their countries of birth. Because they entered the U.S. legally, these promising bright minds do not qualify for DACA and need new statutory provisions in the law to resolve their immigration issues.
Broader access for immigrants with special skills needed to help American innovation
Skilled immigrants have powered America’s innovation economy, create new businesses and put more Americans to work. Additional smart policies would expand the number of H-1B visas—a program that routinely receives more than three or four times the number of applications than slots allowed annually. Further developing the program would enable immigration officials to punish companies that abuse the program and provide more resources for the federal government to more efficiently and effectively manage the program.
Development of a startup visa
A version of the startup visa recently passed in the U.S. House as part of the CHIPs Act, which is designed to reboot American economic competitiveness, and enable founders of high-growth companies from around the world to launch their business in America. These visas are similar to the startup visa that Canada, Australia, Chile, and other nations have created, as they’re eager to host the next Google, Intel, Uber, and PayPal startups of tomorrow. (In fact, already all of those companies—and 55% of the 582 U.S. startup companies that are now valued at over $1 billion—have immigrant founders or co-founders.)
Expanded opportunities for international students
We also need to create further pathways for international students to receive degrees from U.S. universities, enter the U.S. workforce, and remain in it for longer periods of time. Recent research by the Economic Innovations Group documents solid majorities among Republicans (66%), Democrats (83%), and Independents (70%) supporting policies that expand the number of skilled immigrants.
Support for communities that serve as new homes to immigrants.
Immigrants to the U.S. overwhelmingly want to live out American ideals and come to the U.S. for opportunity and freedom. Immigrants make communities more sustainable and more vibrant. But too often the costs and process for immigration borne locally are uncompensated. Federal support and direction to facilitate integration can indeed help aid communities, refugee resettlement hubs, and other communities experiencing rapid immigration growth. In addition to providing federal financial support and guidance, a White House Office for New Americans would go a long way to setting and implementing comprehensive integration policies to help local communities welcome newcomers.
Additional resources to make our broken immigration system work for everyone
Without adequate money for federal immigration judges, asylum cases are backlogged. Without appropriate funding for immigration officials at USCIS, international students can waste valuable months waiting for the administrative processing of practical training opportunities. Appropriate funding of our immigration system would provide resources for border security, but more impactfully, it would enable the system to work more efficiently and effectively, ending the practice of having to house immigrants waiting on immigration courts.
Finally, we need to accompany comprehensive immigration reform with much more aggressive anti-corruption efforts abroad and international economic development aid and infrastructure building to address root causes of immigration. The U.S. must proactively work to curtail the violence, corruption, poverty, and lack of good job opportunities abroad that drive migrants to make the incredibly arduous and dangerous journeys to the U.S. as better alternatives to staying in their home countries.
With asylum-seekers massing at the border and the future of the Trump-era Title 42 border policy keeping them out in limbo, the moment screams for comprehensive immigration reform. Without a clear platform, solution and plan of action on the immigration issue on the part of Democrats, Republicans who don’t really want to fix immigration problems, but demagogue the issue, will continue to get a pass.
If immigration advocates can start sending the right message on immigration reform, along with concrete package of proposals to fix the real problems, they might turn the table on the game-players and their stunts and get something done.
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