How many times can the Democrats trip over the same stumbling block when it comes to immigration? How long will they allow Republican anti-immigrant extremists to intimidate them, to the point of forgetting that a majority of the population and a majority of the people who vote for them in elections support a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants in this country?
Their political behavior on this specific issue has always walked a fine and slippery line that works to perfection in every campaign but heads into a determined tailspin when they achieve power.
For example, last Friday the White House had to reverse itself after announcing that it would leave the annual refugee cap at the same level as Donald Trump, 15,000. This is something that, as a candidate, Joe Biden had promised to increase. The reactions from pro-immigrant and pressure groups were unexpected, generating an immediate change in position.
Did they think no one would realize it, and that their acquired legitimacy after the elections was a blank slate to change positions or, in any case, go back on promises? This barely-passed test should shine a light on the political moment we are living in, the historic moment through which we are all traveling, and the fact that the vote they received was not an easily-won gift from society, but a new opportunity to vindicate themselves as a political-electoral option, before their electors and diverse immigrant communities.
In the case of the Democrats, in theory, it has always been part of their script to support immigration reforms that include a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants. But in practice, when they begin to face Republican critics or even moderates in their own party, they become paralyzed or abandon their original promises.
Their weakness—their lack of political courage when it is most needed—is in fact evidenced after just three or four steps toward the exercise of public policy, as if walking on the right side of history was just the rehearsal of an orchestra that will never perform its symphonies.
How can one forget that Barack Obama promised immigration reform and, although he had a Democratic Congress on his side, opted to look for bipartisan support? And that, in doing so, he expanded deportations. Ultimately, there was no Republican support and absolutely no reform. There were family separations, and millions of undocumented immigrants saw their efforts to achieve a better life, for them and their families, frustrated. The “Deporter In Chief” will be his permanent alias, whenever the issue of immigration in the Obama presidency is analyzed.
On the other hand, no one forgets that the Chief of Staff for Obama from January 2009 to October 2010, Rahm Emanuel, avoided the immigration issue, considering it “harmful” to some Democrats. But he was wrong, and subsequent elections proved it. In fact, tackling the immigration issue without fear helps Democrats win elections. Biden is the most recent example of this. As a candidate, he did not hesitate to support reform. As a president, he has offered a bill with a path to legalization for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But the increase in numbers of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border; Republican critics; press headlines; some surveys that give bad marks to management of the border issue; as well as the fears of moderate Democrats; have begun to have repercussions on the White House’s decisions.
One would think that, by now, Democrats would not fall into the same trap. After all, a majority of the players are veterans of previous battles, who should know the Republican playbook by heart. But what happened on Friday showed that this is not the case. If pressure made them break a campaign promise to increase the refugee cap to 125,000, although they then reversed course–what will happen when they face opposition to measures to legalize millions?
In the first instance, it could be concluded that the form in which the White House ultimately responded was, in some way, a “solution”; but let it not be lost that this came after pressure.
What Biden cannot forget is the historic moment in which this White House finds itself, in the middle of a pandemic, with a politically divided country after the Trump presidency, who focused on immigrants in the cruel and more nefarious public policies. A coalition of voters chose him over Trump, looking for real and humane solutions to problems, including the urgent need for immigration reform that has the support of a majority of U.S. citizens.
The situation at the border must not jettison the efforts to legalize those who have lived here for decades. Neither should Democratic paralysis, every time the opposition tightens the screws.
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