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The Siren Song of Immigration Reform, 2022 Style

photo of graffiti that reads "No on is illegal" by Mike Guziuk

The midterm elections have passed, and there’s something about elections that makes people think again about immigration reform. As immigration lawyers, color us hopeful but skeptical. It’s unquestionably necessary, but it has long been necessary. Still, each new election prompts at least a few commentators to think that this might be the time.

At The New York Times, Eileen Sullivan points out how Republican political ads dishonestly connected cross-border migration with the influx of fentanyl into the United States, then writes, “The false narrative, which resonates with voters across the country, is just one example of how toxic the issue of immigration has become.” It’s not clear after that why she thinks Republicans who are using a false narrative and ignoring polls that show the country’s broad support for DREAMers will now bargain honestly when they have resisted engaging the issue for years, but she offers at least guarded—very guarded—hope for negotiation, at least on the DACA front. Where border security and legal immigration are concerned, she sees two parties at odds.

Curiously, Sullivan’s prescription is for Democrats. She argues that they’re losing the messaging war that equates immigration and crime in the minds of many Republicans. Democrats do need to find better ways to talk about immigration, but neither they nor the messaging are the obstacle to immigration reform. As Sullivan points out, many Republicans see finishing Trump’s wall and drastically restricting the influx of immigrants including limiting asylum to be the right kind of reform.

The Hill’s Nolan Rappaport rightly sees the problem being that Republicans and Democrats have drastically different ideas for reform. Republicans want a reform that emphasizes security and the removal of immigrants, while Democrats want to deal more humanely with the immigrants who are here. He points to the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 and the three legs that propped up that deal—additional border security; the creation of the H-2A visa program for temporary, often agriculture, workers; and a legalization process for undocumented immigrants who went through a process to achieve status. Rappaport wonders if another three-legged program might make immigration reform possible again.

It’s an interesting question, but Rappaport writes, “I don’t think Republicans want legalization or the other measures Democrats include in their immigration reform bills.” He takes the Republicans’ willingness to compromise 36 years ago as a sign that they might be willing to compromise now despite the increased polarization of the last decade, then puts the blame on Democrats for bargaining in bad faith. His solution is to create a new program for juvenile immigrants, funnel DACA recipients into it, ensure that those in it can’t help family members immigrate, and step up border security. Even if such a deal could be struck, it’s so narrow that it’s hard to see how it meaningfully addresses the issues.

Immigration reform is hard. Sullivan writes, “In general, border and immigration policy are two of Mr. Biden’s least favorite issues to discuss, his staff has said, since it is an enormous challenge with no clear, quick solution.” Slamming the door on desperate people at the border is cruel, but trying to change the conditions that caused them to flee their homes is difficult. There aren’t clear, simple solutions.

And, it’s a subject that risks electoral pain without payoff. A Gallup poll from October 2022 showed that stances on immigration were the top issue for only six percent of the respondents, behind (in order) government, inflation, and the economy. Frank Newport writes in his analysis of the poll that people are concerned about illegal border crossings now but favor some kind of accommodation for those who are already in the country:

In summary, if elected officials and leaders follow majority public opinion on immigration, they would vigorously enforce existing laws that restrict illegal immigration into this country; seriously consider the issue of increased limits on the number of immigrants allowed into the country legally; and look for a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are already illegally here.

That doesn’t seem likely, but one thing that makes this election seem different is that Conservatives saw a reason to have doubts about the illogical, fear-based politics of the last six-plus years. That doesn’t mean they will, but since the most extreme candidates were largely rejected, perhaps some will see the value of more moderate, co-operative stances, something voters have routinely said that they wanted.

Let’s hope this time is different. This week The Washington Post pointed to Canadian immigration policy as something lawmakers should look at. The editorial writers acknowledge that there are many meaningful differences between the border situations Canada and America face, and that “Canada has a relatively functional immigration system that responds rationally to its economic needs. The United States does not.”

It would be nice to finally see lawmakers address that.

Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash.

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