Now is the time for Democrats to stop ceding the immigration debate to Republicans and instead lead it. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), CBP (Customs and Border Protection) and the Border Patrol have all shown there is no bottom to their depravity when it comes to migrants, especially migrants of color. Four years of a self-admitted, braggadocios white nationalist agenda has once again proven this to those of us who’ve been willing to ignore or conveniently forget our racist history.
The time is now.
Our American immigration history is rife with nationalist agendas and political rigging of the system to benefit those groups of migrants who were deemed more worthy of compassion, groups that were usually white or white-enough. Democrats and Republicans alike have created these draconian laws, systems and agencies. There is plenty of blame to be thrown around in all directions.
On occasion, I have had the fortune to speak with Congressional members on the left about what it means to lead in immigration policy. Most have expressed a sincere desire to at least reform the systems if not create more humane ones. Where they tend to stall out in the debate is when the issue of national security is brought up. Since 9/11, Republicans and immigration agencies with the help of anti-immigrant hate groups like the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform have dominated the stage arguing in favor of more harsh policies aimed predominately at Muslims and other immigrants of color. Democrats have sided with some of these policies and funded nearly all of them, while refusing to hold anyone accountable for the human rights violations and deaths that resulted from them.
Part of the problem with the Democrats is that they simply did not have a plan. The Republican immigration agenda is fraught with racism and immoral policies, but some have argued that it was at least some sort of a plan. Although the Democrats have had a few policies like DACA, for the most part, their agenda has remained more of a general concept than solid, written policies. Even though Democrats have more pro-immigrant members within their party, many still fear being seen as light on crime and harsh against law enforcement, which translates to a loss of votes for them.
The immigration debate has thus been seen as too hot of a topic for them to invest completely in. But this hands off approach has led to the very thing they feared, simply because the hands off approach allowed for Republicans to frame the Democrats’ position as only open borders, pro-crime and anti-law enforcement. Voters were left to believe whatever the Republicans said was their agenda. When you fail to state your position, your opponent will define it for you.
The Obama/Biden Administration failed to take the lead on the immigration debate. It was during this administration that the demographics of those coming to our southern border changed drastically from single Mexican men looking for work to asylum seeking families with children from Central America. Even though single men looking for work was a humanitarian issue and in general not a law enforcement one, it was treated as a security issue. Administrations on both sides of the isle sent hordes of Border Patrol agents to the southern border to deal with them. This militarization of the border continued even when those single men stopped crossing and families started.
The Border Patrol and CBP are law enforcement agencies. Border Patrol operates in between the ports of entry; they are the agents in green. The agents in blue at the ports are CBP. Both agencies have the same general mission: to prevent entries without inspection, to prevent illegal goods and narcotics from getting into the country and to prevent terrorists from crossing. None of these missions encompass the asylum seeker and their families. That is because asylum is predominately a humanitarian issue once records checks have been completed and passed and not a law enforcement one. Administrations have been using a law enforcement tool to hammer what is a humanitarian nail.
Democrats must have a plan going forward that creates an alternative to separating families and detaining asylum seekers indefinetly while they wait for their hearings. This would involve drastically increasing the number of asylum officers who maintain different and highly specialized training when compared to CBP and Border Patrol. When asylum seekers present themselves at the ports or turn themselves over to Border Patrol, they should immediately turn them over to this asylum system. This system must conduct security and medical checks while seekers are temporarily housed in humane facilities. Those who pass their credible fear test will begin the process. The entire way, the system should be geared towards helping the seekers and not penalizing them as seeking asylum is not a crime but a human right.
For those leaders of these agencies who initiated some of the most inhumane and brutal policies of this past administration, they must be relieved of their positions and held accountable for their crimes. The Biden Administration must resist appointing insiders to these agencies again and use outsiders to clean them up in order to change their cultures of brutality and xenophobia. This means that these agencies and their staff must no longer associate or consist of members of the anti-immigrant hate groups. Any association with racist hate groups must become a justification for termination.
If the Biden/Harris Administration is serious about leading on the immigration debate, they must create a large and robust asylum process that is both security conscious and humane at the same time. The answers to immigration questions lie neither on the far right nor the far left, but in the middle.