It is highly probable that the Biden administration will focus its first few months on bringing the COVID-19 public health crisis under control and dealing with the economic challenges facing the nation. Immigration is not likely to be at the top of the agenda.
It should be.
Addressing immigration is imperative in the post-Trump era. After what the country has been through on the issue, immigration can no longer be relegated as a policy priority.
We have seen how the issue of immigration was used as a poisonous political platform for dividing the nation, stoking xenophobia and intolerance, and justifying absurd and cruel solutions, such as a border wall and family separation. The results of the Georgia senatorial elections open up an opportunity to act swiftly on the issue. Control of the House of Representatives and the Senate by the party of the president presents a unique opening, not seen since 2009-10, to deal with this issue all at once and take away a card that has given much political powder to those who would exploit the most primal fears of Americans. Such alignment of congressional and executive control of the agenda may not exist after the next midterm elections, when the president’s political party usually loses seats in Congress.
In addition, reformed immigration laws may help resolve some of the most important challenges facing the country today. An immigration system that is both more rational and more humane can aid in resetting the economy, improving race relations, staving off a pending demographic crisis and encouraging Americans to revalue immigration for the nation.
Passing an immigration bill that resolves the status of the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, reconsiders the criteria for migrating to the country, improves the immigration court system and revamps border security would go a long way toward putting Americans at ease on this issue.
On the first score, despite the rhetoric, illegal migration is no longer a problem in the U.S. It peaked at around 12.2 million undocumented residents in 2007 and has been falling since. Moreover, the 10.5 million unauthorized residents today have been here for 10 years or more. They have made a life in the U.S.; most are working, many already pay taxes and nearly half have American-born children. Moreover, the pandemic showed that, despite their status, most of them were in fact essential workers and did not shy away from going to work every day, despite the risk of getting infected. Thousands of them have been infected or died for doing their work. It is important to recognize their efforts on the pandemic’s front line, and going forward, the dire need for immigration policy that supports their work and contributions in this time of crisis and their essential role to the U.S. economy.
Second, immigrants are now coming mostly from countries in Asia and Latin America. Given the demographic changes the U.S. population faces in the next decades, it is time we understand that diversity is the future of America. The sooner we embrace that, the better off we will be as a society. Throughout American history, waves of immigrants have shown they can integrate successfully. We should trust our system to make Americans out of immigrants and out of their descendants — in mind and heart. Skin color cannot be a criterion for immigration.
Third, the U.S. is about to face a major demographic crisis. The fertility rate now stands at 1.73 births per woman. The population replacement rate dictates the fertility rate should be at about 2.1 births per woman. In the U.S., immigration has often made up for the difference and added population on top of that, but recent suppression of immigration flows and deaths from the COVID-19 crisis have sunk the country to a population growth of merely 0.35 percent, the lowest since 1900. This shrinkage caps the country’s economic performance, reduces the future tax base and funding for popular government programs such as Social Security and undermines the nation’s standing as a world power. Witness what has happened in Japan already over the last few decades.
Finally, immigration has historically given the United States a kind face to present to the world — something which has been lost over the last few years as the Trump administration reduced the number of refugees admitted, separated families and rejected our tradition of giving everyone a hearing to make their case over whether they deserve to stay. This unkindness cannot stand, and America must recover its image as a place of shelter for some of the most vulnerable in the world.
Of course, immigration is not, and has never been, an easy policy issue in the U.S. But recently, it has become more controversial and polarizing; it has split the country and given politicians an opportunity for grandstanding and displaying political cruelty. The Biden administration must remove immigration as an opportunity to divide the country again anytime soon, and must address it in a way that makes Americans again look to immigration as positive for the country — as most already do anyway.
Now is the time.
Tony Payan is director of the Center for the U.S. and Mexico at Rice University's Baker Institute. He is the editor of "Undecided Nation: Political Gridlock and the Immigration Crisis."