America’s unauthorized immigrants have been cut out of the conversation

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While migration at the U.S.-Mexico border is again raising legal, political, human rights and humanitarian issues in Washington, D.C. and across the country, little attention is being given to how best to address the estimated 11 million unauthorized migrants residing in America’s interior. 

The Supreme Court is now considering a case centering on the administration’s efforts to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or the “Remain in Mexico” policy. MPP, which started in January 2018, is a program that requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while pursuing asylum in America. The court will also attempt to address what the law requires concerning detaining migrants crossing the border.

Also, a federal judge in Louisiana, citing health care and education costs states could incur, recently temporarily blocked the administration’s plan to wind down the use of Title 42 as early as May 23. Title 42 is a 1944 public health law used in March 2020 as a COVID-19 border restriction. It permits authorities to quickly expel unauthorized migrants attempting to enter the U.S. 

The White House has clearly stated its aims to terminate MPP and Title 42. To replace them, the administration recently announced a plan to address the expected surge of men, women and children attempting unauthorized entry into the country.

Congress is also debating the administration’s plans to no longer enforce Title 42 and do away with MPP. Congressional Republicans and growing numbers of Democrats have raised objections to the administration’s plans to terminate the enforcement of the policies.

Furthermore, many U.S. states are concerned and involved in the halting of Title 42 and MPP. Texas and Missouri with the support of other states are asking the courts to keep those policies in place.

While border enforcement has varied across administrations, America’s fundamental immigration policy relies on the principle that “we are a nation of laws.” Three decades ago, for example, former Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas, who was the chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, remarked, “For our immigration policy to make sense, it is necessary to make distinctions between those who obey the law, and those who violate it.” 

Also recently, the Biden administration emphasized the rule of law in its plan to address the expected surge of migrants at the Southern border. At the opening of the 20-page plan, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas wrote, “Core to this plan is our commitment to continue to strictly enforce our immigration laws.” 

In contrast to the frequently stated enforcement of laws at the Southern border, immigration laws within the country’s interior are for the most part going unenforced. For example, upon entering the White House, the administration proposed a 100-day moratorium on most deportations, which was subsequently indefinitely blocked by a federal judge. 

The White House has also put priorities and limits on interior enforcement. The focus of its deportation efforts is on unauthorized migrants who have committed serious crimes, such as a felony or aggravated felony. In other words, the 11 million unauthorized migrants residing in America’s interior can expect not to be arrested and deported unless they’ve committed a serious crime. 

As a result of those enforcement priorities as well as the policies of cities and states opposed to repatriating unauthorized migrants, immigration-related arrests within the country fell nearly 40 percent from the previous year, according to the recent annual report of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In principle, the government has a variety of options at its disposal to deal with those who have illegally entered the country or unlawfully overstayed a temporary visa. ranging from an amnesty or path to citizenship at one extreme to repatriation or deportation at the other. 

The logistics, costs, objections and consequences of the various options, however, have prevented reaching a political solution. Massive deportation, for example, would be a costly operation, difficult to implement and economically and socially disruptive to America, the countries receiving them and the repatriated migrants.

Similarly, a path to citizenship would be a costly, complex and lengthy undertaking. Another consequence of amnesty would be creating an incentive for others to unlawfully migrate to the U.S. The experience of the last major amnesty — the Immigration and Control Act of 1986  when the number of unauthorized migrants was only a quarter of today’s number, is often mentioned to highlight those unintended consequences. 

Also, attempts to address the status of unauthorized migrants in the country’s interior are frequently tied to resolving related immigration issues. For instance, establishing control over illegal immigration at the Southern border, considered a serious issue by three in four voters, is viewed as a prerequisite before considering a possible path to citizenship for unauthorized migrants.

Regarding the credibility of America’s immigration system, Jordan clearly summarized what she believed was needed. Succinctly stated in a single sentence, her recommendation is: “Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave.”

Despite her recommendation’s clarity, determining who should not be here and who will be required to leave the country presents a formidable challenge for Washington’s policymakers. In fact, after years of attempts, Congress and the administration have made little progress in the matter. 

How best to address the presence of 11 million unauthorized migrants residing in the country’s interior appears no longer to be a serious matter of political concern for America. Consequently, millions of unauthorized migrant men, women and children residing in America continue to live in a precarious legal situation. 

Given the state of U.S. politics and the prevailing mood across the country, unauthorized migrants workingstudying, establishing households, and raising families in America are unlikely to have their current status resolved any time soon.

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and the author of numerous publications on population issues, including his book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Barbara Jordan Dreamers. Biden immigration Immigration. Title 42 Politics of the United States Remain in Mexico policy unauthorized immigrants

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