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Biden should emphasize immigration enforcement

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At President Biden’s request, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) introduced an ambitious and long overdue set of rational reforms including a path to citizenship; help to manage root causes and better manage our borders by deploying new technology among others. Instead of messaging primarily to the Democratic base about his bill’s many virtues, Biden should forthrightly talk to the American people about his enforcement strategies, early and often, repeatedly and relentlessly. Outlining his enforcement plans is the right thing to do, would avoid key mistakes made during previous failed reform attempts, and potentially attract centrist support, or at least neutralize opponents who already are vowing to all-out resistance to the bill’s “amnesty” program.

This is exactly the opposite of what most pro-immigrant advocates are telling the administration. Pro-reform advocates understandably feel burned by the Obama years. President Obama likely thought that his tough enforcement record would speak for itself. But because he rarely talked about it, that record was distorted by constant, misleading GOP attacks. It didn’t help that the right-wing media machine simultaneously questioned the authenticity of his birth certificate, falsely alleged he was Muslim, and widely deployed racist dog whistles to weaken him on immigration, an issue inextricably intertwined with race.

None of that nonsense would stick to the white, longtime centrist Biden, if he first sets the terms of the debate beyond his base, which already supports reform. What should Biden say? First, he should state, and repeat, the basic principle that every sovereign nation has the right to control its borders: that those who wish to come outside the law must be prohibited from entering and those here unlawfully must face consequences.

Second, he should educate the American people that the United States now has an effective border security system, that we spend more on immigration enforcement than on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, and that this system has produced results. In the last year of the Obama-Biden administration, the Border Patrol recorded the lowest level of illegal cross-border migration on record, as measured by apprehensions along the border and inadmissible encounters at U.S. ports of entry. 

Third, Biden should be clear that his administration will promptly remove security threats, those convicted of felonies and drug traffickers, and continues to deter those seeking to enter unlawfully. Full stop.

Fourth, having established the basic soundness of his enforcement regime, he can go on to educate the public about the system’s weaknesses. The country doesn’t provide enough visas for people our country wants and needs to enter legally, so too many entered unlawfully in the past. That immigration offenses, almost unique in federal law, don’t have a statute of limitations, that there aren’t many ways for people here without papers to legalize their status, and that under current law, all immigration offenders, regardless of their circumstances, are subject to the maximum penalty of deportation. Which is why his bill would create more legal pathways for people to come, allow long-term undocumented residents to get right with the law, and address the root causes of migration that forces people to leave their home countries.

Finally, he should level with the American people about what enforcement can and cannot do. For decades, our country all but encouraged unlawful migration. The economy overall and especially the upper class reaped the benefits, while the undocumented population itself was ruthlessly exploited. We — all of us — own that. And he should state what most people already understand: no system short of a police state can ever completely eliminate unauthorized entries, but his bill would manage it far more effectively and humanely than the alternatives.

Reform advocates are quick to point out the many injustices, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies in the immigration enforcement system — and they’re legion for sure — but they rarely articulate enforcement policies they’re prepared to support. As a result, it’s far too easy for even those sympathetic to reform to interpret them as pushing policies that approach an open border for all.

Biden can avoid that trap, but only if he forthrightly states the enforcement policies he supports, and not just those he opposes.

Charles Kamasaki is senior advisor at UnidosUS, a Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, and author of Immigration Reform: The Corpse That Will Not Die (Mandel Vilar Press, 2019). The views here are his own.

Tags Bob Menendez Citizenship Immigration Joe Biden Linda Sanchez

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