COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM
The Congress elected in 2020 must enact comprehensive legislation to resolve the plight of four groups: the waves of asylum seekers arriving at our borders searching for sanctuary, the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) beneficiaries in need of permanent legal status, the 11.2 million undocumented immigrants who have been contributing for years to our communities and tax coffers, and those seeking to reunite with family who have legal permanent status or citizenship in the United States. The immigration reform we need must stand on the same four principles which have enabled our immigration policy to so greatly benefit our nation in its growth as a beacon of opportunity: Humanitarianism, Family Unification, Employment Needs, and Diversity.
To clear the way for comprehensive immigration reform, we need to remove the fear of joblessness and wage depression that stokes anti-immigration nativism. This fear of economic insecurity has fueled the rise of authoritarian demagogues worldwide, who peddle a burgeoning and violent anti-democratic nationalism advocating ethnic and racial privilege. We can overcome this threat to democracy not through empty words, but by providing guaranteed jobs at fair wages with collective bargaining and worker participation on corporate boards, from which we all can benefit. Comprehensive immigration reform will then clearly put no one’s well-being in jeopardy.
The United States, like many other nations, faces a growing wave of asylum seekers, fleeing brutal violence and repression in their homelands. They make up the vast majority of the new border crossers on our Southern frontier. Asylum seekers are not “illegal aliens” but rather people entitled to request safe entry at our borders and to have their cases resolved by Immigration Judges with due process in a timely manner, as required by the Refugee Reform Act of 1980 and the United Nations Protocol of 1961, of which the U. S. is a signatory. We cannot turn asylum seekers away or use a wall to block their entry, but must fairly consider their applications and treat them humanely while their cases are being examined.
Our asylum system must be overhauled to meet the massive influx of asylum seekers and observe due process. The current arrangement is plagued by a huge shortage of officers and immigration judges, as well as unwieldy procedures that drag out into a series of immigration officer interviews, immigration court hearings, and three potential levels of appeal. Currently there is a 7 year wait just for the first hearing. As a result, people can seek asylum to game the system, obtaining entry and disappearing into the woodwork as cases grind on for years and years.
To overcome these abuses, we need a new asylum system with enough officers, judges, and facilities to keep the entire process within a manageable 6 months, with one hearing before an expert immigration officer, one appeal before immigration judges, and guaranteed legal representation to ensure that asylum seekers’ rights are duly observed. Asylum seekers would be released immediately upon entry with electronic tracking devices. The prompt asylum review process would largely eliminate fraud and unnecessary detention, while ensuring that those granted asylum can begin putting their traumatic pasts behind and enjoying the benefits of legal status.
Reducing the tidal wave of asylum seekers requires broad ranging efforts to establish a fair international burden sharing of refugees, as well as policy changes to remove the underlying causes of the turmoil driving people from their homes. Our “war on drugs” has hugely enriched and empowered the drug cartels, which have taken advantage of our lax gun controls to arm themselves with enough weapons to terrorize large regions of Latin America. We must drive the cartels out of business by legalizing personal use of drugs and treating addiction as a health rather than a criminal matter. We must also give massive non-military assistance to the afflicted countries to help them fulfill their people’s social rights and promote a just law and order, which can help staunch the mass exodus of asylum seekers.
Comprehensive immigration reform must include a broad, simple, and efficient legalization program that covers all undocumented groups. Legal status and a path to citizenship must be provided on humanitarian grounds to the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, some of whom have been laboring for decades on poverty wages to build and feed our nation, and many of whom have U. S. citizen children. For years we turned a blind eye to their illegal status while taking advantage of their services. Fairness now requires that we provide them with the privileges of legal residence and citizenship on a par with their U. S. citizen family members. If we don’t, we leave them in legal limbo, let employers exploit a vulnerable workforce and depress wage levels, and allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to terrorize their families by swooping down on them as they try to go about their daily lives.
Granting of legal permanent residency and a path to citizenship should apply without delay to two groups with special equities whom the Trump administration has targeted for removal: DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) beneficiaries and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) beneficiaries. We need to remove the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the heads of DACA recipients, whose recent victory in the United States Supreme Court allows them to stay but leaves them without legal status, and TPS beneficiaries, many of whom have been living in and contributing to the U.S. for decades while their countries recover from natural disasters or civil unrest, enjoying temporary legal status without any path to legal permanent residence and citizenship.
For them and all other undocumented immigrants the process for obtaining legal status and citizenship should be clear, streamlined, and fully staffed to eliminate delays. The residence requirement for eligibility should be no more than 1 year to keep the proof gathering process simple and fraud free. First, eligible undocumented persons should be provided temporary legal status, which grants them all fundamental social rights, like working legally, driving with a license, and traveling back home to see family. This status should be renewable for life and would address the need of many to work in the United States intermittently and return home to sustain their families. Second, these persons could, if they so wanted, apply for legal permanent residence, i.e., a Green Card, after which by existing law in 3 or 5 years become eligible to apply for citizenship. The waiting period between the two steps would be decided by assessing existing backlogs and measures to streamline the documentation process. Only serious crimes threatening public safety should bar eligibility at each step.
We must prohibit the deportations of immediate family members of United States citizens, legal permanent residents and those with legal status, as well as of veterans without citizenship. Our families must not be torn apart. Comprehensive immigration reform must increase the numbers of family members who can immigrate to reduce the long waiting times that are keeping families separated. We must allow U.S. citizens to petition for not just their spouses and minor children, but also their older unmarried and married children, parents, and siblings. “Chain” migration, which Trump wants to eliminate, is justified and should be sustained. Family bonds are of fundamental value and many of us need more than a nuclear family to be happy and productive.
The United States has needed to expand its supply of both low-skill and high-skill workers to grow and prosper and play a leading role in the world. Comprehensive immigration reform must include measures to address this need. In today’s global economy, many low-skill workers unable to earn a living back home seek temporary employment in the United States to earn enough money to return home and improve their families’ welfare. Our economy also needs a growing influx of low-skilled and seasonal workers. We can satisfy both interests by enacting a renewable visa program for such workers, who must have the same employee rights as U.S. residents and receive the same wages and benefits. This will reduce illegal entry of those seeking employment and allow many to enter as workers, rather than asylum seekers, asylum being far more difficult to obtain. Secondly, we need to expand the H1B visa program to bring in qualified professionals in all those fields where shortages of expertise are threatening our welfare and prosperity. Otherwise, we will lose out to other more welcoming nations and cease to be a magnet of global talent.
The Federal Job Guarantee and employee empowerment will ensure that no U.S. residents will have their livelihood endangered by these measures. Everyone will retain access to a job at fair wages in an economy open to the world.
Comprehensive immigration reform must protect and foster the Diversity Visa Lottery program. This program has countered the previously low quotas of immigration for people from many countries, like those from Africa and Asia, for whom family or employment avenues to entry were long unavailable. The Diversity Visa Lottery enables such populations to add their distinctive cultural ingredients and flavors to the rich stew that makes the United States so attractive for the world. These persons, as well as the spouses and minor children who accompany them, are rigorously vetted before they enter the country and pose no security threats.
ENDING UNJUST ENFORCEMENT OF OUR IMMIGRATION LAWS, USING DUE PROSECUTORIAL DISCRETION, AND PROVIDING SANCTUARY UNTIL LEGALIZATION IS ENACTED
All undocumented immigrants deserve legal assistance, due process, and humane treatment the moment they cross our borders. Removal from the country must not be based on arbitrary decisions made by ICE’s Enforcement and Removal wing (ERO), in cooperation with local police and sheriff’s departments via “287(g) agreements” and “detainer” requests. Local law enforcement should not agree to ICE requests (detainers) to hold for 48 hours any person who is otherwise releasable by posting bond to await a court hearing (and thus has not been proven guilty) or by completing sentence time. This amounts to unconstitutional re-arrest for either the same crime or for a new crime that the person could not have committed while in jail. The only exception to this policy would be where a person commits a crime pre-listed as extremely violent, dangerous to the community, or threatening national security, and a judicial warrant has been obtained for the added detention. Moreover, all undocumented persons who are arrested should be entitled to the four “Miranda” rights, which include being informed before interrogation that they have the right to remain silent. The United States Constitution applies to all, not just documented persons.
ICE and any replacement immigration enforcement agency should therefore employ prosecutorial discretion and arrest for purposes of deportation only undocumented persons who have committed “very serious’ crimes, such as terrorist and cartel gang activity, homicides, kidnappings, and human trafficking. All other undocumented immigrants should be allowed to lead their lives without fear until a legalization program is enacted under a comprehensive immigration reform. Persons committing lesser crimes should be prosecuted under existing criminal laws, but this would not lead to deportation. At the border, only those who are known to be violent or dangerous criminals should be criminalized and held in federal prison for illegal entry or reentry. The rest should be immediately returned.
Moreover, since half of the undocumented are not border-crossers, but rather persons arriving legally on visas that they overstay, we need an exit control system to ensure that people leave by the visa expiration date. Under this system a person’s passport would be stamped on departure, providing a record of those arrivees who left on time and aiding the apprehension and removal of those who remained in the country illegally.
Until legalization occurs, cities and counties should operate as sanctuaries for the undocumented. This does not mean that they should hide away their undocumented, but that they should not enter into 287(g) agreements with immigration enforcement agencies and honor “detainer requests” except for the rare persons convicted of a “very serious” crime endangering the safety of our community.
Indiscriminate enforcement subjects immigrant communities to long-term psychological harm, as well as all the destruction of family bonds and economic security that deportation wreaks. Current policies foster fear and distrust of police and sheriff’s departments and a reluctance to report crimes among members of the undocumented community. In an age of pandemic, where confinement in close quarters can mean a death sentence, we must reduce detention to a minimum and close down all for-profit immigration detention centers, which trample on justice with their business model of maximizing detainee numbers and lengths of detention.
Instead of throwing away billions of dollars on building a wall, we can better stem the tide of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants by funding an economic development Marshall Plan for Latin America, by replacing trade agreements that undermine peasant agriculture, and by changing our drug and gun policies, which have vastly enriched and murderously empowered the drug cartels, whose wave of terror is driving people north in fear for their lives.
Sophisticated technology has substantially reduced illegal border crossings. The new border crossers are increasingly the millions fleeing Central America to escape the extreme violence of drug cartels, millions who are openly seeking asylum protection at the border. A wall will not stop their perfectly legal asylum applications.
Our war on drugs is responsible in no small part for this new migration. It not only fails to stem the drug trade, but also keeps drugs illegal, which enriches the drug lords the war was supposed to defeat. If we treat drug use as a health, rather than a criminal problem, we can undermine the illegal drug business and greatly reduce the desperation that is driving so many to risk illegal immigration. This would also reduce our mass incarceration prison problem, which would help the families and communities of the affected, disproportionately minority prison population, as well as free up tax dollars for the public investments we need.
Rather than building a wall, we should hire many more trained asylum officers and immigration judges to make asylum more efficient and humane. Innocents should not languish in immigration detention centers while waiting for a hearing before the judge, nor in unhealthy and unsafe make-shift camps across the border in Mexico, where they lack access to U.S. lawyers. Nor should children be cruelly separated from their parents to deter new arrivals at the border. Children who arrive at the border unaccompanied should be released to family members or friends, whose legal status should not disqualify them from such guardianship. We must continue to sustain and strengthen our historic mission of providing safe harbor to those confronting persecution at home. Let’s make these comprehensive immigration reforms a reality after the 2020 elections.