Opinion: If Biden gets Congress to act on immigration reform, he'll be a miracle worker

Scott Martelle
·4 min read
President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Biden's pending immigration proposal will give Congress a chance to redeem itself after years of failing to reform the immigration system. (Associated Press)

The devil will be in the details, of course, but President-elect Biden’s plan to place immigration reform near the top of his to-do list is a welcome step because it directly addresses a thorny political issue and immediately repudiates the atrociously inhumane policies of the Trump administration.

But it's not going to be easy.

The Biden plan is expected to be a mix of executive actions and administrative policies, as well as proposed legislation to offer a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million people currently living in the shadows.

It also is expected to include a mechanism for granting legal status for the so-called Dreamers — people living here without permission after arriving as children — and people covered by temporary protected status. That last group consists of people who were in the U.S. when political upheaval or natural disasters made it unsafe for them to return to their homelands.

The political wrangling over Biden’s plan is going to be significant, and getting Congress to act will take nothing short of a miracle. Few issues in contemporary American politics are as thorny as immigration, pitting those who believe in living up to our history as a nation built on immigration against folks who would prefer to keep the door only slightly ajar.

Add in the usual overlays of class and racial bias and it becomes understandable why Congress has failed to take significant action on immigration reform since the Reagan era.

Understanding, though, isn’t the same thing as finding Congress’ failure acceptable.

There is much Biden can do by essentially undoing Trump administrative policies, including scrapping the cruel “remain in Mexico” requirement that asylum-seekers wait south of the border during the excruciatingly slow asylum process — a process that was all but shut down by COVID-19 restrictions.

But simply undoing Trump’s policies won’t be sufficient. And neither will resetting the calendar to the end of the Obama administration. President Obama’s immigration policies were a mixed bag. He focused on border security and ramped up deportations in hopes of gaining conservative support for legislation accommodating the Dreamers, among other issues. But that failed, leading Obama to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program through an executive order, which at best was a stop-gap protection while a more permanent resolution was sought.

Biden shrewdly is not including much in the way of border security in his initial offer, according to reports. That gives him a bargaining chip to try to win over conservatives and even some moderates who balk at the notion of creating a path to citizenship for folks here without permission. Of course, whether Biden will have any more luck with Congress than Obama did is a significant question mark.

At least he seems to be looking at immigration with clear eyes and absent the malevolence of Trump and advisers like immigrant hard-liner Stephen Miller.

Broadly speaking, the U.S. needs continued immigration to support an expanding economy. The argument that immigrants take American jobs crumbles under close scrutiny.

In fact, the evidence suggests that immigrants are more entrepreneurial than native-born Americans and generally create more jobs than they take. And while immigrant labor might temporarily lower wages for specific jobs, wages quickly recover — and help create other jobs that in the end leave both the immigrants and the existing laborers in their communities better off.

What is also clear is that current system for determining who gets to immigrate, and for what reasons, needs to be reviewed.

For decades the focus has been on family reunification — giving priority to relatives of folks already here. Some argue that the focus ought to be on educational levels and skill sets aimed at addressing labor shortages in specific areas.

Those aren’t mutually exclusive priorities. We can do both. But first we have to open the subject up for sincere discussions in Washington among members of Congress and advocates who must reckon with the political reality that nothing will move forward without compromises.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.