Gimmicks won’t solve the humanitarian crisis at the border
In the run-up to the American Civil War, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay rose to speak out against a Southern proposal to bar even the discussion of slavery in Congress. His quip “I had rather be right than be president” would come to symbolize the type of leadership all of America yearned for (honest and daring) but too rarely voted for. Indeed, despite helping to keep the country together through various compromises, Clay would never become president.
Fast forward to 2022, and where are the politicians vowing that they’d rather be right than be president? With an ongoing humanitarian crisis at our border and the desperate need for serious immigration reform, we as a nation have leaders whose only goal seems to be to win the news cycle or win the next election, irrespective of the cost. A key example? Red state governors who are using migrants as political pawns to further their political aims while their Democratic counterparts pretend the current system is just fine.
We do have a crisis, and for all the stunts, these red state governors are correct. New York Mayor Eric Adams said his city was “nearing its breaking point” after receiving 10,000 immigrants, while the Illinois governor has declared a state of emergency for 500 immigrants. Yet Tucson, Ariz., a city of 100,000, has had to contend with over 250,000 migrants this year alone. The U.S. as a whole is already approaching 2 million migrants. But gimmickry camera chasing and simply saying “the border is secure” are not substitutes for policy, nor are they the answer to our current situation.
Why is there such a surge? Because America has few avenues for legal immigration other than through the border these days. Due to COVID-19, decades of benign neglect, hostility and a lack of leadership, our legal immigration system has effectively buckled.
One of the biggest myths is the notion that legal immigration only means what we see at the border. But immigration is so much more. Prior to COVID-19, 8 to 10 million individuals applied for visas to visit, work or study in the United States. Millions were able to successfully immigrate each year, and those numbers helped fuel our economic growth.
Not so much now. Those who attempt to go through the maze that is our legal immigration system must contend with backlogs that will have some waiting 150 years to become permanent residents, a backlog of more than 1 million work permits, a global lack of visa interview availability to even come to the United States and a system that ridiculously allows for 140,000 employment-based permanent green cards per year in a nation with millions of job openings.
In response to this broken system, millions are attempting to use the asylum system to live and work in the United States as a work around. Under our immigration laws, if a migrant comes to our country, turns themselves in and asks for asylum, they are entitled to a hearing. While waiting for that hearing, these asylum seekers can obtain work permits and remain in the country. More than 1 million have been permitted entry to pursue asylum claims this year alone.
But asylum should only be for those truly escaping persecution and who have a genuinely credible fear of returning home. But our asylum courts are so backlogged that many of these applicants will be working in the United States for years before having a hearing. While many are genuinely escaping persecution, many are economic migrants using asylum to come to America to live and work.
Real national leaders would point all this out and urge our nation to adopt a large, expansive and nimble immigration system to process the millions of potential workers from their home country, narrow our asylum laws and acknowledge that a visa quota of 140,000 employment-based green cards simply cannot meet our labor demands. Even increasing visa numbers alone will not work without serious reforms to the immigration apparatus that processes cases.
Effective adjudication will require bold and expansive ideas such as eliminating paper-only filing systems; conducting any required in-person interviews remotely or waiving them outright for low-risk immigrants given the emergency economic circumstances we face; and leaning far more on technology.
Gimmicks and stunts feel good and make headlines, but we will not gimmick our way out our labor shortages or our humanitarian crisis at the border. If Govs. DeSantis (R-Fla.), Greg Abbott (R-Texas) and Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.) want a real feat: Instead of flying migrants out, why don’t they fly all our national leaders – Democrats and Republicans – in. Sit around a table for the good of the country and work together as Henry Clay would have done.
Chris Richardson, an immigration lawyer, was a U.S. diplomat between 2011 and 2018 and served in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Spain.