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How Biden Can Flip the Script on Immigration

It starts with embracing border security.
June 29, 2021
How Biden Can Flip the Script on Immigration
A migrant child stands amid tents at an improvised camp near a screen reading May the wait don't bore you outside El Chaparral crossing port as he an others wait for US authorities to allow them to start their migration process in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on March 11, 2021. - President Biden's administration moved quickly to start dismantling the controversial ¬remain in Mexico policy, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), with a first stage that began on February 2021, while thousands of migrants out of MPP program are stranded along the US-Mexico border without knowing when or how they will be able to start their migratory process with US authorities. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP) (Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images)

It feels like 2015 all over again.

Back then, Republicans on the make used the plight of the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s civil war as a way to convince the American public that immigration was out of control.

This was an exaggeration, of course. In fiscal year 2016, fewer than 13,000 Syrian refugees were resettled in the United States.

But as is often the case with migration narratives, the numbers didn’t matter. Driven by fears of the “floods” or “waves” of immigration the American public put an unrepentant nationalist in the White House for the first time in our nation’s history.

Today, former president Donald Trump is leading Republican efforts to weaponize immigration again. But instead of Syrian refugees, he and his party have singled out Central American families fleeing violence and corruption as the new fear.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is crowdsourcing funds and law enforcement resources from across the country to supposedly secure the border from these families and in the coming days, several House Republicans will gather in the summer heat for their own Border-Palooza. The headlining act will be a Trump/Abbot town hall hosted by Sean Hannity in Edinburg, Texas.

Will voters buy the panic this time, too?

In 2015, Democrats, and many moderate Republicans, underestimated the power of an anti-immigrant message to convince the American public that immigration was out of control.

And today—at least so far—they are making the same mistake.

The trap Democrats have fallen into is seeing immigration solely as an issue for the two parties’ bases. They believe that only hard-core nationalists on the right care about immigration. And on the left, in both message and policy, they speak to a choir of progressives and liberals.

The Democratic base is primarily concerned with undoing the hundreds of changes to immigration policy orchestrated by Trump and Stephen Miller. And progressives eventually want to see a massive reduction in immigration enforcement. These two desires make many of them reluctant to place any emphasis on the idea of security.

This strategy would be fine if the United States was a progressive utopia.

It is not.

Democrats—and the moderate Republicans who seek a constructive approach to immigration—need to view immigration as an issue that builds consensus. They need to approach it not as a base-turnout wedge, but as an issue that allows those who were turned off by Trump’s immigration approach to find another in-group—one that may still be politically conservative or moderate in nature, but doesn’t scapegoat and demagogue immigrants at every turn.

To do this, Democrats need to talk about security.

Just not in the demeaning and destructive ways that past administrations (both Democratic and Republican) have employed it.

Instead, lawmakers in search of good-faith immigration solutions need to make clear that a secure border—and a secure nation—depend on three things.

  • A functioning immigration system.
  • A sophisticated security approach that has the technology, personnel and infrastructure necessary to humanely regulate movement at the border.
  • Solutions that address the root causes of migration.

To improve the functioning of our immigration system, the Biden administration should first dive into negotiations with Senate Democrats and Republicans to find a bipartisan compromise that stabilizes the lives of Dreamers and farmworkers, and puts in place smart border security solutions. Following House passage of the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, bipartisan efforts in the Senate are well underway. The White House process through which compromises are currently being developed on infrastructure and police reform offer useful templates for moving forward.

Then the administration should secure the border by managing it in a much more effective and efficient way. For example, before rolling back Trump border policies, ensure the staffing and facilities. Surge asylum officers and judges to the region; ensure ports of entry have the necessary facilities; streamline administrative processes.

Look, even Sen. Bernie Sanders’ leaked budget reconciliation draft included $14 billion for “border and infrastructure” and $10 billion for “Land Ports of Entry.” These are security measures. Democrats should own them. 

Finally, in terms of solutions south of the border, the administration should continue to collaborate with the governments and civil society organizations of Mexico and Central America to advance solutions to corruption, violence, and poverty.

And most importantly: the White House needs to communicate these solutions to the public in a way that builds consensus.

The immigration debate of 2021 does not have to be the debate of 2015. Immigration doesn’t have to be a divisive tool of fear.

Immigration presents the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how we can be both a nation of laws and a nation of grace.

But that won’t happen unless Biden and Democrats make it happen.

Ali Noorani

Ali Noorani is president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum and author of the forthcoming book, "Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants."