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The State of the Union 2023: Challenge Congress to act on immigration

By Tara Watson

It is clear to most observers both that immigration policy is in desperate need of reform and that the new Congress is unlikely to act. Meanwhile, we have seen near-record numbers of asylum seekers at the border, immigration-related labor shortages, and backlogs in every corner of the immigration system. What can Biden say about immigration in the State of the Union address?

First, Biden should reaffirm America’s long-standing commitment to immigrants and immigration.

Though immigration has long been contentious in the United States, we also have a long and successful history of welcoming people from around the world. Immigrants from a hundred years ago experienced high rates of socioeconomic mobility, and the same American dream is being realized for many more recent immigrants. Immigrants make vital contributions to entrepreneurship and innovation, boost economic growth and wages, and are a critical factor in making sure that the U.S. population doesn’t decline.

Second, he can celebrate a newly expanded humanitarian parole program that has the potential to shift the narrative at the border.

There are less surreptitious border crossings than there were two decades ago, but numbers have risen recently, and an additional new challenge has emerged in recent years. It stems from a major shortcoming of our legal immigration system: there is virtually no way for someone with neither high levels of education nor close family ties to enter the U.S. through regular channels. Instead, the only option for those facing instability or violence is to cross the border, turn themselves in to Border Patrol, and request asylum. Hundreds of thousands of would-be migrants have been doing just that, threatening operational control at the border and creating an immigration court backlog approaching 800,000.

The administration has recently expanded the use of humanitarian parole to address this issue. Starting with migrants from Ukraine and Venezuela, and now expanded to immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, the parole process offers a safer and more orderly pathway to come to the United States. Once in the United States, parolees can petition for asylum and receive a temporary work permit. The policy, in conjunction with tougher approaches to asylum at the border, appears to have been successful so far: border encounters with Venezuelan nationals fell by 60% between September and December even as encounters with those from other countries rose.

Third, he can put the ball back in Congress’ court, where it ultimately belongs.

Congress has not passed any significant immigration legislation since 1996, and the laws on the books reflect neither current realities nor political consensus. The vacuum is filled by the executive branch. The result is policy whiplash which creates confusion and chaos in the lives of immigrants and undermines the integrity of the system as a whole. The President should set the stage for Congress to take some real action on this issue—if not a comprehensive reform, which currently seems out of reach, then smaller tweaks. For example, it could act to address the disparate fiscal impacts of immigration across states and localities. Or Congress could fix the system for migrant farmworker visas and status for Afghans who assisted U.S. forces during the war. Any of these policies could be crafted to garner bipartisan support, and doing so would show that Congress is not fully abdicating its responsibility to manage the nation’s immigration policy.

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