Congress returns to work and, on the issue of immigration, we see the same old song and dance continue as it has for decades. On the one hand, Republicans exploit the “crisis” at the border as if it were something new, without offering solutions, just a return to the cruel policies of Donald Trump. And the Democrats, understanding that not all of their members support far-reaching measures and, making political calculations, begin to offer excuses, blame the Republicans, and lay the groundwork for another possible disappointment.
That is unless, in order to pass immigration reform in the Senate, where they need 60 votes to advance measures, the Democrats ignore the Republican opposition, just like they did to approve the coronavirus assistance package.
In these next weeks the fate of Joe Biden’s broad immigration plan, which aims to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants, will begin to be defined, along with the fate of other, smaller measures that legalize, for example, Dreamers and farm workers. These measure were approved in the House of Representatives, but the hurdle is in the Senate, and it all is peppered with the arrival at the border of thousands of migrants, especially unaccompanied minors, where Republicans are once again revisiting the argument that without border control, we cannot talk about legalizing those who are already in this country without documents, many of them for decades.
But the fact is, among all of the topics that usually come up as campaign promises, immigration reform is one of the “ugly ducklings.”
The last true amnesty was during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, in 1986, and it legalized 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. The measure was criticized for not doing enough to keep employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, since the eternal supply and demand for labor remained constant, and many thousands of immigrants continued to arrive after the amnesty of that year. This and that fact that U.S. policy in the region destabilized many of these countries, which were engrossed in civil wars that provoked the exodus of their nationals toward the North, after all the damage this nation left in their wake.
Years passed and with the arrival of the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton, the immigration measures imposed in the 1996 reforms were rather disastrous, like expanding the reasons to detain and deport immigrants, including permanent residents. We could say it had a little bit of everything, except the elusive path to legalization.
Then comes the year 2001, with a Republican in the presidency and not just any one, but George W. Bush. A Repubican who supported broad immigration reform, which evaporated after the terrorist attacks that year in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. In the last two years of his presidency, 2006 and 2007, were failed attempts to pass immigration reforms. The 2007 debate brought to light many things, among them a very organized anti-immigrant movement, a divided pro-immigrant movement, as well as the age-old political-partisan considerations: moderate Democrats opposed, and in that year in particular, the possibility that another Republican president, George W. Bush, could be the one to promulgate reform, something that many Democrats were not keen on.
In 2009 another Democrat, Barack Obama, assumes the presidency with the explicit promise of pushing for immigration reform, but the only thing he pushed was a record number of deportations, with the excuse of seeking Republican support that never came. The “ink” stayed in the “inkwell,” even though Obama, under intense pressure, protected Dreamers from deportation in 2012, a little bit before his re-election. Once re-elected, in 2013, he supported an immigration reform that advanced in the majority-Democratic Senate, but died in the majority-Republican House.
In the interim, the attempt to legalize the Dreamers also failed, in 2010.
Essentially, in all of these years, the only constants have been the failed attempts to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom have lived in this country for more than two decades. Many arrived with or without children but now have grandchildren. We continue to hear the same old Repubilcan arguments against reform, beginning with control of the border, as if stopping the entry of undocumented immigrants was at odds with regularizing the status of those who have lived here for years and have proven their contributions to this country–such as farm workers, whose migratory limbo is truly immoral for a nation that preaches so much about human rights in other parts of the world.
In 2021, 35 years will have passed since the approval and enactment of the 1986 reform. Now the president, Biden, who in his long history in Congress and as vice president has been a participant in all of the debates, seeks to advance a broad reform plan, which many say has very little chance of advancing. It remains to be seen if Biden and the Democrats will bypass the Republicans and invest political capital so that, for once and for all, immigration reform will stop being the “ugly duckling” in this story.