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Migrants wait in vain for progress on comprehensive immigration reform

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Migrants wait in vain for progress on comprehensive immigration reform

Jun 07, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Barrington Salmon
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Migrants wait in vain for progress on comprehensive immigration reform
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Gov Ron DeSantis announced on Feb. 1, 2024, that he was sending National Guard and Florida State Guard troops to help control the Texas-Mexico border. On March 13, he deployed Guard and law enforcement resources against immigration from Haiti. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

The last time a bipartisan U.S. Congress passed comprehensive immigration reform was 38 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.

Since 1986, successive Congresses have tried and failed to enact legislation that the Migration Policy Institute says “would marry increased border enforcement with legalization for unauthorized immigrants and the ability to bring in future workers needed by the U.S. labor market.”

America’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, their families, and the rest of the country have waited for decades for political leaders at the highest levels of government to do what the electorate elected them to do. That is to secure the southern border and codify a legal path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, who are a vital backbone of Florida’s and America’s labor force.

Migrants wait in vain for progress on comprehensive immigration reform
Migrants was transported to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., on Sept. 14, 2022, after they were recruited in San Antonio by an operative working for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and flown to the small community. (Getty Images)

Even as Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans spilled fake tears, gnashed their teeth, and wailed about hordes of immigrants spilling across the southern border, they have politically weaponized the immigration issue. Republicans have lied about migrants being criminals, minimized the positive impact of their presence in the United States, and some governors even bundled these profoundly vulnerable human beings onto airplanes and buses and deposited them in Democratic-run cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles.

According to a recent MoveOn petition, “DeSantis used more than $600,000 in taxpayer dollars to lure 50 Venezuelan asylum-seekers onto a flight to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The stories from the Venezuelan immigrants are both heartbreaking and enraging. … They were intentionally deceived and were put on a plane with nothing but a fake brochure that said they would be given benefits like eight months cash assistance, housing, food, clothing, expedited work papers, jobs, and assistance registering their children for school. But it was all a lie. It’s absolutely inhumane.”

A variety of polls, analysts, and pundits say immigration will be an issue in the presidential election in November. Republicans and Democrats are jostling to wrest control of the issue.

DeSantis and the GOP brain trust have been deliberate and strategic in manipulating the immigration issue, stirring the pot and stoking unfounded fear in the hearts of Americans about the migrant “crisis.”

Democrats, on the other hand, have fumbled in their response. They always seem a day late and a dollar short. To those in immigrant communities fighting to be heard and pushing for policies and laws to advance their cause, Democrats have fallen well short of their promises.

Ability to divide

DeSantis, party leaders, and policymakers signaled well ahead of this fall’s presidential election that immigration would be front and center as a political issue primarily because of its acrimony and its ability to divide.

A recent Gallup poll survey and a range of stories across the news spectrum show that the ploy has worked. Gallup researchers concluded that immigration “has surged” to the top of the electorate’s concerns.

Rank-and-file Republicans have been spooked by a peak influx of more than 300,000 undocumented immigrants who crossed the southern border in December. Consequently, 28% of those polled cited immigration as the most important national problem.

Gallup researchers said Republicans typically are the subgroup most likely to name immigration as the most important problem, adding that they are largely responsible for the increase in mentions in the poll. To wit, 57% of Republicans characterize immigration as the top problem.

Migrants wait in vain for progress on comprehensive immigration reform
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Credit: Office of the Texas Governor

In response, DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, other Republican governors and national and state politicians have poured gasoline on an alarming and distressing problem by sending migrants to Democratic cities.

As these racist, repulsive politicians use undocumented immigrants as political pawns, the fact that they are human beings — whose only crime is that they seek a better life — gets overlooked or ignored. Meanwhile, former president Donald Trump — the son and grandson of immigrants — has made his revulsion for Black, brown, and other non-white immigrants an animating factor in his 2024 attempt to return to the White House.

“Nobody has ever seen anything like we’re witnessing right now. It is a very sad thing for our country,” Trump told a right wing news site in a 2023 video interview, as reported by CNN. “It’s poisoning the blood of our country. It’s so bad, and people are coming in with disease. People are coming in with every possible thing that you could have.”

An immigration reform bill that a bipartisan group of senators hammered out but that Trump forced the GOP to scuttle was described by immigration activists and advocates almost universally as “draconian.” It was characterized as “the strictest border crackdown in a generation.”

Migrants wait in vain for progress on comprehensive immigration reform
Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford speaks with reporters in the Russell office building in the Capitol complex in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (Photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Lankford, a Republican, Democratic Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, and Arizona Kyrsten Sinema, an independent, led the months-long negotiations on the bill that they hoped would severely diminish the number of people crossing the border; raise the bar for migrants qualifying for asylum; and allow the president to close the border when the numbers of migrants coming in gets concerningly high.

The senators, who negotiated the legislation in good faith, learned the hard way that those Republicans who have shouted the loudest about border security are hypocrites and snake oil salesmen.

Once they learned of Trump’s strident opposition to the bill because he didn’t want to give President Joe Biden a pre-election legislative victory, the senators jettisoned the legislation.

“In the end, all but four Republicans voted against moving forward on the legislation — including Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who had delegated Lankford to negotiate the bill combining Ukraine aid and border security and had been closely involved in the negotiations,” the Associated Press said in a February story.

Political expediency

Immigration advocates and activists, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and others have castigated politicians in both parties for sacrificing undocumented immigrants on the altar of political expediency. They fear passage of the bill would set back comprehensive immigration reform for decades.

Migrants wait in vain for progress on comprehensive immigration reform
Haddy Gassama via LinkedIn

Haddy Gassama, national director for policy and advocacy for the UndocuBlack Network, said in an interview that undocumented immigrants and other migrants dodged a bullet.

“It was pretty awful and really shocking but a good turn of events that Republicans killed it,” she said of the bill. “It was shocking and worrisome. We were very concerned about it, such as the provision requiring the U.S. to close border to those seeking asylum using a trigger number. We were very concerned about that.”

Gassama said the bill was “crazy, arbitrary, concerning,” because “it sought to create a policy similar to Title 42 to trap people seeking asylum, offering zero due process rights and invoking a policy to expel people,” she explained. “It seems to be a very clear theme of gutting asylum by both parties. They seemed really focused on making asylum as weak as possible.”

Democrats had planned to bring the measure back for a vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, despite no real chance of the bill becoming law. But in an election year, performative gestures are more important than substance. True to form, when the measure was brought up for a vote on May 23, it failed again.

Activists like Gassama; Patrice Lawrence, executive director of UndocuBlack and a member of the community it serves; plus other groups and individuals fought against the corrosive immigration policies of the Trump administration and collaborated with the Biden administration and political allies. But they have watched legislative session after session end without what they seek: a measure that would allow DACA recipients, undocumented immigrants, and others seeking asylum to work, remove the considerable barriers to their freedom, and the ultimate prize of a path to citizenship.

But in the present, Republicans in Congress are intent on resuming work on the border wall, reintroducing a policy of the Trump administration demanding that asylum seekers remain in Mexico.

They also plan to use mass surveillance to remove all undocumented workers from the U.S., roll back protections for migrant children, eviscerate services to undocumented immigrants, and make it considerably harder for migrants to secure asylum.

For undocumented immigrants, the emotional rollercoaster will likely not end soon.

Threatened crackdown

Whoever is elected president in November will be confronted with a searing, discordant issue that’s not going away. If Biden wins and Democrats hold the Senate and take the House, he promises to work with Congress to develop a path toward citizenship. But if Trump wins, he promises on Day One to kick off an immigration crackdown and widespread deportations of as many as 20 million people.

Allies of Trump are working out details to speed up asylum hearings and deportation eligibility, and remove deportation protections implemented by Biden.

In 2024, what’s clear to migrants, undocumented immigrants, DACA recipients, and others is that neither political party may provide them with what they sorely need.

More and more, they are hoping for a miracle which may not come in our lifetimes.