There’s nothing like the images of packed rickety rafts at sea and unaccompanied minors flocking to the border to torpedo President Joe Biden’s push to pass immigration reform.
The nation — and millions of immigrants who already call the United States home — desperately need a system overhaul and a pathway to citizenship. But despite the comprehensive bill recently introduced in Congress, there seems to be no winning formula yet on the table.
Biden’s immigration bill — sponsored by Cuban American Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Mexican American Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif. — is short of the 10 Republican votes it needs in the Senate to pass.
The stench of Trumpism, its untruths and anti-immigrant rhetoric, still hangs in the air.
Go “big and bold,” Menendez urged, and for a moment last month, it seemed possible under Biden and a Democratic-majority Congress to pass most of the 353-page bill, even if it takes hard negotiation and, as a last resort, extreme parliamentary maneuvers.
But there are discouraging signs that trouble lies ahead.
Like his predecessors did, Biden will likely deal with an immigration crisis or two made all the more complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, there’s evidence of hot spots surging, as desperate people flee economic conditions made harsher by the pandemic — and word reaches Cuba and Central America that a kinder administration is reversing Trump’s hard-liner policies.
In recent months, the Coast Guard reports, there has been an uptick in the number of Cuban rafters interdicted at sea off South Florida’s shores, more than 100 in barely two months of 2021. Most have been repatriated to Cuba without the opportunity to make a case for asylum in court; some have made it to land.
At the southern border, asylum-seeking families and unaccompanied minors are arriving to confusion between Trump-era restrictions and Biden’s promise of more humane treatment, The New York Times reports.
Both scenarios are giving people who want to see the immigration bill succeed the jitters.
And, in a worrisome development, sources told The Miami Herald that the Biden administration has ordered the Homestead, Florida, detention center for unaccompanied minor teens to reopen, igniting justified anger from Democrats and hypocritical concern from Republicans who supported family separation and incarceration of children under Trump.
The reopening of a “prisonlike” camp in our back yard, a place where some minors alleged they were sexually abused, would be a damning retreat from campaign promises made by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Trump-styled cruelty would not happen under their watch, they vowed.
Yet, Biden’s administration has already opened a similar holding facility in Texas that can house 700 unaccompanied minors ages 13 to 17, and that, too, is being rightly criticized. Children should be placed in the custody of sponsors, relatives, and child-care experts, not left vulnerable to the secrecy under which detention camps operate.
The immigration bill, on the other hand, assigns resources to an orderly, legal immigration process, adequately funding and staffing courtrooms and judges to process asylum claims.
A replay of border chaos is hardly the ideal scenario to push the comprehensive immigration reform bill in Congress. Biden will have to demonstrate that he can avert a full-blown crisis, keep borders secure and at the same time he must stay true to his pledge for humane treatment.
Immigration goes hand-in-hand with U.S. policy toward the Americas.
By addressing in a high-profile way the issues at home — and giving people hope of a better future — Biden can diminish illegal immigration and human trafficking. Setting legal and reasonable pathways for family reunification, almost nonexistent during the Trump years, also would go a long way to ending dangerous flights by sea and multicountry treks.
It would be a shame if another refugee crisis sidelines needed reform.
Major polls show that providing an eight-year-long path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented in the country — so many of them critical workers who have kept this country running through the pandemic — is favored by a majority of American voters.
Reform or no reform, the “Dreamers,” brought here as children and Americans in every way except on paper, should be legalized now.
Despite the uphill challenge, Biden and the Democrats are right to aim high.
After all, the last sweeping immigration reform in this country came by way of a Republican dubbed the “champion of conservative values,” Ronald Reagan, in 1986. The A-word, amnesty, was as controversial then as it is now and has been stripped from the immigration vocabulary.
Reagan granted amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, and the Republican Party benefited from the initiative in places like Miami, where many of the Central Americans fleeing wars became Republicans.
Before Reagan, Democratic administrations gave Cuban Americans the privilege of wholesale entry and easily adjusted immigration status — and they became the largest Hispanic group in the country to register and vote Republican.
The GOP had nothing to fear with Reagan’s amnesty — and has nothing to fear now under Biden’s reform.