In late March, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project launched a campaign urging people to “step up and take action” to “reshape our racist and unjust immigration laws and policies.”
It might seem like bad timing. Headline after headline has chronicled the increase of migrants at the southern border, and it is shaping up to be a major stumbling block to the comprehensive immigration reform many thought possible under President Joe Biden.
“We cannot possibly pass any legalization legislation until we regain control of the border,” said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, part of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who put forward a comprehensive reform bill in 2013.
Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, argues now is exactly the right time, given the shift in administration. And the window of opportunity is narrow, closing when another election cycle rolls around.
“The next nine months is really critical. Maybe even the next six or seven months,” he said. Repeated disappointments in the past, including over the 2013 bill, have fueled the sense of urgency. “We just have to get it done this year.”
But there’s no doubt the border situation has raised difficult questions: Do lenient policies, including the kind of paths to sweeping legalization outlined in Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act, encourage more migrants to come? How should the U.S. treat those migrants?
And ideas that have percolated for years among immigration activists, notably ending deportation and detention, raise other questions: Should we send no one back? What would immigration enforcement look like instead?
The Seattle Times discussed these and other questions with Barón and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Seattle Democrat who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has long been a leading proponent of immigration reform.
Like Barón, Jayapal said she was undeterred by the recent increase of migrants, and Republicans’ reaction to it. “Not scaling back at all,” she said of the scope of reform she and fellow progressives are seeking. “But there might be multiple vehicles that we utilize.”
Case in point: Two bills were passed by the House last month, offering pathways to legalization for immigrant farmworkers and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who were brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children. Both had some Republican support, Jayapal noted. Yakima Valley Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse co-sponsored the farmworker bill.
The bills nonetheless are expected to be tough sells in the Senate.
Also last month, Jayapal and two other Democrats — Rep. Adam Smith of Bellevue and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey — reintroduced a bill that would shrink the number of immigrants in detention facilities, which are essentially jails. “There’s no reason to be detained if you’re a refugee waiting for a bond hearing,” Jayapal said.
The bill would also phase out detention centers run by private businesses, expanding bans in 23 states, according to the sponsor of a bill that passed the Legislature last month in Washington that would close the Northwest detention center in Tacoma.
Jayapal says she believes in some type of immigration enforcement but has not fully spelled out her vision. A “Roadmap to Freedom” resolution she co-introduced in January lays out principles for a transformed system — “scalable civil consequences to immigration violations” being one of them — without getting into the nitty gritty.
Elaborating just a little when interviewed, she said “escalating fines” is one example of a possible consequence.
As for deportation, Jayapal and Barón said the call to end the practice stems from a belief that the current system is unjust. It splits up families, with the government frequently deporting spouses and parents of American citizens. People in deportation proceedings often don’t have lawyers.
And, Barón argued, the system hews to narrow grounds for asylum that do not include, for instance, gang violence — a huge reason for the current wave of migration from Central America. He said he’d like to see migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras given temporary protected status.
If the system changed? “Yes,” Barón said, “I would be OK with the fact that we’d have to send some people back. But we’re so far away from that system.”
Similarly, Jayapal said: “Am I saying at the end of the day that there’s nobody who should be deported? No, I am not saying that.”
But neither she nor Barón thinks there would be much need for deportation if the Citizenship Act passes, since it would offer a path to citizenship for most of the roughly 11 million people thought to be in the U.S. without legal status.
The bill does not, however, offer legalization to new arrivals. Customs and Border Protection data released Thursday shows more than 172,000 apprehensions at the border in March — the largest monthly total in decades.
Are they coming here because of Biden? Migrants came in large numbers even during former President Donald Trump’s administration, one of the most hostile to migrants in recent memory, with 2019 setting previous records.
Many were turned back without being allowed to apply for asylum, and some may be trying again. Some migrants have told reporters the new president had given them hope, even though his administration, too, has been expelling many.
On humanitarian grounds, Biden has made an exception for unaccompanied children. “So parents are making the awful decision to send kids on their own,” Barón said.
The administration, having crowded youth into border detention facilities, has been looking for space at shelters and homes run by nonprofits in various states, including in Washington state, where the federal government currently funds 90 beds for these kids.
“What’s happening at the border is challenging because it is really complicated,” Jayapal said. Barón agrees, saying: “I’ve always felt the other side has a simple (solution): ‘build the wall.'”
He echoes Biden’s call for investment in migrants’ home countries, to alleviate problems like gang violence and devastation from natural disasters, so that over time fewer people will feel the need to come to the U.S.
But those who do should mostly be allowed in, at least to apply for asylum, Barón said. “I don’t think in a county of 330 million people that allowing tens of thousands of people is going to overwhelm us.”
Jayapal talked more broadly about creating “a humane immigration system that allows people to stay in their countries if they want to, and then also to be able to come to the United States … whether it’s as asylum seekers, refugees, or for work or other reasons.”
Republicans, though, are quick to deride what they see as “open border” proposals. And even some people who believe the U.S. can accommodate far more immigrants are wary of throwing the doors wide open.
“There has to be some limit,” said Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Because immigrants legally here can sponsor family members to come, 1 million admitted today could mean 10 million over time, he said. “So you can’t just think about today, you have to think about ripple effects in the future.”
He advocates for a streamlined asylum system that would more quickly decide who stays and who goes, combined with more legal avenues for people to enter the U.S. to work, which he said would cut down on illegal immigration.
Hypothetical ideas, and what’s passable in Congress, are obviously different things. Jayapal conceded Republican positions of late make it difficult to envision accomplishing many elements of reform in a bipartisan way.
“We try to pass as much legislation as we can with 50 Democrats,” she said, referring to the evenly divided Senate. At the same time, the congresswoman said, she and others are looking for other means: reforming the filibuster rule that requires 60 senators to move to a vote; arguing that certain proposals have a budgetary impact and passing them with a simple majority through the so-called reconciliation process; and looking to the Biden administration to enact policies, thereby bypassing Congress and accepting the possibility of reversal in a new administration.
Jayapal said she thought Biden’s signature immigration proposal, the Citizenship Act, still has a chance. “I am far from ready to give up on it. We’re going to push hard. This time we’ve got the most powerful voice in the country with us.”