During his first joint address to Congress on Wednesday, President Biden touched upon the topic that, for many, is the defining issue of his presidency.
“Let’s end our exhausting war over immigration,” Biden said. “For more than 30 years, politicians have talked about immigration reform and we’ve done nothing about it. It’s time to fix it. On Day 1 of my presidency, I kept my commitment and sent a comprehensive immigration bill to the United States Congress.
“If you believe we need a secure border, pass it, because it has a lot of money for high-tech border security. If you believe in a pathway to citizenship, pass it. There’s over 11 million undocumented folks, the vast majority here overstayed visas. Pass it. If you actually want to solve the problem, I have sent a bill to you, take a close look at it.”
The issue is not whether Biden’s proposal warrants passage, nor is it an influx of immigrants trying to cross the southern border. The issue is politicians who for decades have failed to effectively deal with immigration, choosing instead to cleave the topic into wedge issues that appeal to the political base.
For Democrats, that means pandering to immigrants and supporters of widespread immigration, focusing on the human rights aspect of the issue while stressing compassion at the expense of security. For Republicans, that means stoking fear over the nation’s changing demographics and amplifying nativist rhetoric.
While either approach might win votes, neither has effectively reformed immigration policy.
The United States needs secure borders. This nation must signal to the world that we welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breath free — but such a welcome includes restrictions and a demand that the laws of this nation be followed by those desiring to enter.
At the same time, there must be a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who entered the United States illegally but since have embraced an opportunity to build a new life. This is particularly true for the “Dreamers” who were brought here as children.
The complexities require more than simplistic solutions such as building a wall or mass amnesty or embracing xenophobia.
While immigration has been a top-of-mind issue for the past several presidents, the arguments today echo those from decades ago. In part, that speaks to the fact that there are no easy answers; mostly, it speaks to the fact that Congress has been derelict in its duties.
On March 18, the House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, designed to make it easier for migrant farm workers to come to the United States to work the fields. While only 30 Republicans backed the legislation, all four GOP members from Washington and Oregon voted in favor. They understand that migrant labor is essential to the farmers of the Northwest.
The House also passed the American Dream and Promise Act, which would give legal status to immigrants in legal limbo under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside was the only Northwest Republican to vote in favor.
Both bills face a difficult path in the Senate, and neither is a panacea for solving a strikingly difficult issue. Getting to that point will require comprehensive immigration reform, something Congress has failed to achieve over the past 35 years.
Lawmakers can start with sincere consideration of President Biden’s proposal.