Our biggest immigration challenge is balanced and rational policy
The immigration challenge facing the United States today is defined less by facts than by the political protagonists on either side of the issue. Somewhere between appeals to the fear generated by job loss and security concerns and the moral responsibility to aid those less fortunate lies rational public policy.
The New York Times recently reported that the Biden administration is planning a major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, eliminating most of the restrictions imposed by President Trump and reforming a system that is rife with contradictions and unfair practices.
Critics on both the right and left concede that reform is needed and both sides understand that immigration is the third rail of American politics. So why would the president take this on? I would suggest that a responsible president has no choice.
The latest American census showed slower population growth than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. As we emerge from the pandemic employers are desperate to hire and job vacancies abound. The American economy is beginning to expand, its potential seemingly limited only by demographics.
At the same time, the globe added some 81 million people last year. Global population has risen to 7.8 billion. In 1950 that number was 2.6 billion. Most of that growth has happened in the developing world where the “carrying capacity” for human survival is being severely depleted.
More people than ever before are refugees or internally displaced, some 71 million human beings. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, 68 percent of these homeless people are escaping war and persecution. All are suffering deprivation from the conditions of abject poverty, including food and water shortages exacerbated by climate change.
Public opinion polling on this issue varies according to the questions asked and one’s political orientation. Perhaps the most compelling political case is being made for those brought to the United States as children and who know no other country.
These DACA immigrants were given permission to stay in 2012 under a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ruling by the Obama administration. This program, initially a two-year extension, has been challenged in court, suspended and then extended as some 800,000 lives have been used as leverage in efforts to gain or thwart broader reforms. Many have observed the personal anxiety this has produced in these young people and their families.
Another estimated 12 million people have been living in the United States as undocumented noncitizens. Most have lived here for many years contributing to society and paying taxes. They live on a knife’s edge. Any minor legal offense could subject them to deportation.
There is a dispute over whether this group is more or less likely to commit criminal offenses but the research is compelling. Studies in impacted border states show that noncitizens are far less likely to commit crimes than full citizens. However, those opposed to giving these people a path to citizenship use individual cases to exaggerate the problem, appealing to peoples’ fear of the “other.”
Legal entry into the United States is governed by a set of visa laws that are designed to recruit workers with needed skills, to reunite families and to bring in students to our universities. Applicants for these visas are vetted carefully and studies have shown that immigrants with permanent resident visas have contributed greatly to our society.
Students who matriculate in American universities gain an appreciation for our culture and the First Amendment protections our constitution offers. Student exchanges also create personal ties that last a lifetime.
Most of the political controversy surrounding immigration relates to asylum seekers. Under conventions ratified by the United States (and thus carrying the weight of law), a person fleeing his or her home country due to persecution, violence or war must be given asylum. Persecution could be based on a number of factors related to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group. The Biden administration is considering adding domestic abuse to this list.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the number of asylum seekers would expand exponentially given the five-fold increase in global population. Yet, neither the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or the U.S. government has created the enhanced capacity to handle this explosion. Each asylum case must be adjudicated to determine if persecution is involved. Yet, the number of judges to do this work is inadequate as are the facilities to hold applicants while they await a decision.
Instead of creating the personpower and facilities to handle the caseload on the U.S. Southern border, the Trump administration sought to build a wall across the entire 1,954 mile border with Mexico, separated children from families, interred them in prison-like facilities, and forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their cases could be heard.
Compounding the problem, Trump cut off aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the sources of most of the refugees. These harsh and immoral policies did nothing to stem the flow, and they did great harm to the image of the United States.
Many of these people would rather stay home if home offered a better life. That is why Biden’s commitment to provide $4 billion in development assistance to the Northern Triangle over the next 4 years is such an important part of the solution.
There are many studies that show that immigration has had a positive impact on the U.S. economy. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, not known for liberal bias, concludes in one important study that “…economic analysis finds little support for the view that inflows of foreign labor have reduced jobs or Americans’ wages”… and that “…economic effects of immigration are mostly positive for natives and for the overall economy.”
The challenge for the Biden administration is to create immigration policies and processes that are consistent with international law and long-held American values.
The compromises needed to create a viable immigration system have long been available to politicians of goodwill: strengthen application processes to encourage legal entry; set eligibility numbers for permanent residents and temporary visitors based on primary family connections, service to the United States in war zones and rational economic (workforce and tourism) models; enhance border security by improving vetting and using innovative technology rather than walls; adjudicate asylum cases efficiently and humanely; and cease weaponizing the issue for political gain.
Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration.