During the past two years, a multitude of options were available — some sweeping, some specific. Immigration is not in search of unknown cures. Yet nothing was done about the major maladies. That’s a bad outcome in ordinary times; it is a disaster when an immigration system, in crisis for more than a decade, is now imploding.
Don’t look to the future for hope. When Republicans take control of the House in a few weeks, a handful of hard-liners who countenance nothing but walls and deportations will control the agenda.
What happened during the two years that Democrats controlled Congress and the White House? Several sad tales with many authors.
Republicans told a simple story. No matter what kind of enforcement they touted or whatever legalization program they decried as “amnesty,” Republicans consistently fashioned rhetorical links to the “invasion” at the border. That framing drew jet fuel from the constant imagery of migrants at the Rio Grande and news of shattered Border Patrol records. It didn’t matter that U.S. law grants outsiders the right to seek asylum or that the same disorder prevailed under the Trump administration before the pandemic.
Proponents of expansive immigration policies never found a coherent narrative for the border. Faced with surges since he took office, President Biden has grasped Trump-era tools to block crossings, the advocacy groups cry betrayal and immigrant rights lawyers take him to court. Although Biden made important fixes in the asylum system, his big-picture pronouncements were often about distant, long-term matters such as root causes and regional cooperation. Meanwhile, the imagery transmitted urgency.
The advocates largely sidestepped the urgent need for asylum reform and instead concentrated their efforts on winning legalization for unauthorized immigrants already here. Biden, initially, and the advocates demanded a legalization process that would cover the entire unauthorized population of 11 million people. Then, messaging and strategy fractured.
A subset of the larger population, the “dreamers” — migrants who arrived as children, about 2 million total — were simultaneously protagonists in a more tangible and compelling narrative than the amorphous 11 million. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a potent champion for generous policies, focused relentlessly on dreamers, taking to the floor repeatedly to tell their stories, each innocent and accomplished and portrayed in a poster-sized photo.
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The dreamers might have served as emblems for a broad legalization except that popular, long-standing bills proposed legalizing them alone. Still, other measures and messages sought legalization for a subset of dreamers, the 600,000 beneficiaries of a 2012 executive action known as DACA.
The immigration cause fragmented further by this past spring with stand-alone bills that would address labor needs in agriculture and high tech or were aimed at solving backlogs for green cards. When the chances for a big deal failed, it became every group for itself.
This was precisely the outcome advocates of legalization had long fought to avoid.
The 20-year-old strategy behind comprehensive immigration reform always assumed a bipartisan bargain in which extensive legalization is balanced by boosted enforcement with fixes to visa channels negotiated on the side. No one piece could be resolved separately, or the deal would fall apart. For years, proponents opposed stand-alone measures for dreamers because they were a high-value bargaining chip.
In 2013, a bipartisan majority of the Senate passed a massive, multipart reform. When House Speaker John A. Boehner proposed breaking the bill into pieces to get it through the Republican controlled house, Democrats said all or nothing, fearing enforcement would pass and legalization wouldn’t. That deal was set aside.
In 2014, the tea party rebels grabbed immigration as cudgel on the GOP establishment. That summer, the first big surge of Central American asylum seekers hit the border, flummoxing the Obama administration. Donald Trump learned the mantra “build the wall,” and here we are.
As this Congress ends, some will say immigration was too polarizing, too complex for slight Democratic majorities and recalcitrant Republicans in Congress — much less a White House preoccupied with the pandemic. Polls, however, showed consensus around legalization, a functioning asylum system and an orderly process at the border. In Washington, bipartisan majorities made new laws on climate, guns, marriage and passed big spending bills contrary to both MAGA and old Republican orthodoxies.
In each case, issue advocates and their Democratic allies narrowed their ambitions to get something done. Immigration advocates take note.
Now, the costs of paralysis will escalate. A border infrastructure meant to deter Mexican labor migrants and an asylum system designed for Soviet-era defectors puts the United States at risk. Competing for brains, the United States will present bureaucratic barriers while other nations recruit. Food producers will need to rely on unauthorized workers. And some of the millions in the green card backlog will die waiting in queue.
When Washington gets back to immigration, the challenges of 2022 will look easy.