Time to press pause on decades of immigration trench warfare
As we head quickly toward the 2022 midterm elections, our national stalemate on immigration policy remains one of the most destructive versions of ‘Groundhog Day’ that our country’s political class has ever created. For 20 years, the right has pursued enforcement-only solutions whenever it had legislative or executive power, and the left has attempted to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants with only token efforts at enforcement added to their mix. A dwindling band of centrists made legislative progress several times, but never found enough political juice to get a comprehensive bill to the finish line.
Meanwhile, the world has changed immensely. High-skilled individuals like engineers can work from anywhere and are more critical to economic growth than ever. Terrorism and pandemics have highlighted the downsides of transportation and mobility advances. Plus, the U.S. is currently experiencing a labor shortage so great that it’s slowing economic recovery and preventing many businesses from fully reopening.
The shortage of workers impacts sectors in desperate need of staffing — including healthcare, childcare and food supply industries. Immigrants already contribute greatly to pandemic survival and recovery in essential sectors, and they are the logical solution to address the persistent gaps.
Yet, with narrow but complete control of Washington in 2021, the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats put their hopes into the risky basket of adding legalization for millions to a budget and spending bill, after House Democrats found limited Republican support for bills related to farm workers and Dreamers. That gambit apparently has failed. Meanwhile a rush to the border by hundreds of thousands of largely economic migrants mixed in with many potentially legitimate asylum claimants has provided Republicans with easy talking points of a border in crisis. The flickers of bipartisan discussions are but faint embers.
So how would responsible leaders get out of this morass in 2022?
Ideally, a comprehensive reform bill, but that seems beyond the capacity of the current far-right, far-left political posturing classes.
Instead, let’s imagine a smaller deal that attempts to at least reform where there is some consensus, albeit politically tenuous.
To start, the current border management system provides satisfaction to nobody and must be improved. We need way more case capacity to adjudicate the hundreds of thousands of migrants claiming asylum. The administration has proposed hiring hundreds of new adjudicators at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to more quickly delineate between the majority of claims which are not meritorious under current law and the minority which are. This could improve the years-long wait that many applicants experience — and Congress should act on it.
Our legal travel system has an impressive 99 percent rate of temporary visitors leaving on-time. But the one percent become part of the next generation of the undocumented. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is building an impressive entry-exit system using facial recognition to identify violators, but a new enforcement priority and education campaign is needed to tell short-term overstays that they will be located and deported before they establish family or employment roots here.
Legalization is deserved for the well-known Dreamer population. It is also appropriate for the so-called “Documented Dreamer” group, whose parents are here legally on long-term work visas, but whose children lose immigration status when they age into adulthood. Between these two groups, 2 million or more individuals who bear no culpability for their status but are contributing every day as Americans-all-but-in-status should receive green cards.
Additionally, legalization of agriculture workers always has attracted bipartisan support, and the spike in food prices makes it even more essential that our crops can be harvested on time and without disruption.
Lastly, the need to retain high-skilled students and temporary workers as long-term citizens in the information economy is the most critical element of immigration reform. Attracting and keeping the best and the brightest is no different in business and medicine than in sports and entertainment. Can you imagine telling the Yankees that they can only look for shortstops among U.S. citizens?
There are dozens of other important issues worthy of debate and attention, but where consensus has been even more elusive. Let’s make 2022 the year where policymakers agree where they can agree and leave more difficult issues for future power struggles. Perhaps by taking a pause from the 20-year trench warfare on immigration, we can finally make Groundhog Day seem different in 2023.
C. Stewart Verdery, Jr. served as Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security from 2003-05 and is CEO and Founder of Monument Advocacy, a public and government affairs firm based in Washington, D.C. and Seattle. He is also a leader on the Council on National Security and Immigration.