April 14, 2021

Immigration Futility

By Stephen Tuttle | March 20, 2021

Congressional Republicans say President Joe Biden is “entirely to blame” for a growing mess on our southern border. That's quite an accomplishment given that Biden has only been in office a couple of months.

It wasn't Biden who left 3,000 unaccompanied non-citizen children languishing in makeshift detention facilities, including several hundred for whom there is no record of parents. Nor was it Biden who forced 25,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the hearing to which each is legally entitled.

Biden's proposed immigration reform, which we'll get to shortly, likely won't help, but it's a bit premature to blame him entirely. Republicans should do a little homework. The dots connecting our inability to solve the illegal immigration conundrum form a straight line back to the Reagan Administration. 

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was a bipartisan piece of legislation signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. (Yes, in those days, sometimes Republicans and Democrats worked together.) The idea was to restart immigration policy with a clean slate: Most here illegally prior to Jan. 1, 1982, were given amnesty and, in most cases, a path to citizenship, or at least a Green Card. The flip side was it became a crime to knowingly hire anyone who was in the country illegally.

About 3 million people took advantage of the amnesty opportunity. But the threat of sanctions didn't stop businesses from hiring low-wage, hard-working illegal noncitizens, nor did it slow their flow toward our southern border.     

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (which was superseded by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), by 1992, there were already 3.4 million folks here illegally, and the figure was growing by about 300,000 annually. 

President Bill Clinton, to much fanfare, touted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) as his great addition to immigration reform. But the grandly named legislation did little other than make it easier to deport some folks. By the year 2000, there were 7.1 million here illegally, and the annual growth had swelled to 350,000.

Then President George W. Bush and Congress tried the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. It was going to create a path to citizenship for some who were here illegally, add thousands of new Border Patrol agents, build more wall, create more electronic surveillance, and solve this problem. It did not; by 2010 there were 11.2 million illegal noncitizens — the majority of whom were admitted legally then overstayed their visas.

President Barack Obama, who was often accused of being a radical liberal, was the harshest president of all when it came to illegal immigrants. Derisively referred to as the Deporter-in-Chief by immigration reform activists, he deported and prosecuted more noncitizens than Clinton and Bush combined. 

His Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA) did protect nearly 750,000 non-citizens who were brought here as children, so-called Dreamers, from deportation. But there's little doubt the Obama Administration was the toughest ever regarding illegal immigration; they prosecuted and deported far more people and levied greater fines than under any previous president. There were about 10.5 million illegal non-citizens when he left office.

President Donald Trump took a more rhetorical approach, talking tough, but not doing much. His 2,000 mile “beautiful” wall turned out to be 300 miles of rebuilt wall. His promised “deportation squads” never existed, and his administration prosecuted and deported a third as many noncitizens as did Obama in his first term. There are still about 10.5 million illegal noncitizens here.  

Every president and Congress since Reagan have enacted immigration reform, and none have solved the problem. The Biden Administration and current Congress, not to be left out of the futility, have their own plans.

Biden's proposal, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, is by far the most permissive and least likely to gain Congressional approval. It would ease immigration controls, put a moratorium on nearly all deportations, end the wait-in-Mexico policy for asylum seekers, stop new construction on the border wall, create a path to citizenship for those brought here as children, and provide a pathway to citizenship — or at least permanent resident status — for nearly all illegal noncitizens.  

Congress has its own proposals. The American Dream and Promise Act provides citizenship for “dreamers” brought here before they were 18 and who have, among other requirements, no felony convictions involving guns or violence. 

Then there's the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would create something called a Certified Agricultural Worker for those who have worked at least 180 days in agriculture in the last two years. It could provide them a path to a Green Card.

We've been at this for 35 years now. President Biden is no more to blame than the previous six presidents and their Congressional co-conspirators. And the latest proposals are no more likely to solve the problem.  


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