The US immigration system is broken and both parties need to start fixing it

Republicans want to tighten restrictions on asylum seekers but it would be more reasonable to create an efficient immigration process

Migrants and activists demonstrate on the need for migrant rights at the US-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, on December 18. Bloomberg
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The worst House of Representatives in over a century is now holding desperately needed military support for Ukraine to be held hostage over immigration policy. Enough Republicans support Russian President Vladimir Putin and are rooting for Moscow to overrun Kyiv that the party has been able to essentially unite around this cynical ploy.

Such shenanigans are all too common in law-making. Yet this brouhaha it could provide Democrats, especially US President Joe Biden, who is vulnerable to immigration-centred attacks from his likely opponent, former president Donald Trump, the opportunity to buttress his defences on the issue.

Some of what the Republicans are asking for is unduly harsh, but that reflects the widespread anti-immigration sentiment of many of their voters and some Democrats.

Many white Republicans may be more concerned about racial and cultural issues, imagining, as Mr Trump recently claimed, in truly shocking echoes of Nazi propaganda, that migrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa are "poisoning the blood of our country," and later writing online that “illegal immigration is poisoning the blood of our nation.”

Yet, from an economic perspective, many African Americans and Latinos also take a dim view of immigration.

There is a widespread perception that immigration harms the economy and migrants burden society. Large influxes of unskilled labour can drag down low-end wages, but to a limited degree and for a few years. But even communities that not threatened on ethnic or cultural grounds can fear harm to job prospects and wages even though the US is at virtually full employment.

There is a widespread perception that immigration harms the economy and migrants burden society

Employers tend to be sympathetic to immigration, sometimes raising suspicions in the working class, especially among unions. Yet, unions remain core to the Democratic coalition, and Mr Trump spurned the opening he had in 2016 to rearrange the political landscape by bringing organised labour into a populist coalition, and instead remained almost invariably favourable to the wealthy and large corporations. A second term for Mr Biden would demonstrate the size of this missed opportunity.

Another common misconception about immigration that helps to spur widespread opposition is the confusion between "illegal” migration, in which migrants sneak or are spirited across the border and asylum-seekers. Few Americans understand that by law and treaty obligations, the US is at least theoretically required to provide an orderly, reasonable asylum process for migrants who apply for asylum. This is a preferred tactic by numerous migrants, many of whom are undoubtedly prompted mainly by economic considerations. Current policies seek to keep most of them out of the country anyway, and Republicans want to make that much tougher.

The two very different groups are almost invariably lumped together under the repulsive rubric of "illegal aliens." Prying apart this distinction, however, could be an important part of a real compromise.

Democrats should vote for increased border security and law enforcement measures, such as hiring more border protection officers and procuring more equipment, to stop truly unlawful entry. Republicans should vote for large increases to judges and magistrates who can hear, and administrators who can rapidly process asylum cases so that they do not drag on for years.

Republicans are pressing to tighten a wide range of restrictions against asylum-seeking. They want to authorise the government to remove almost all asylum-seekers from the country immediately. It would be much more reasonable, effective and consistent with international law and US values to instead begin developing a rational, rapid and efficient asylum process while simultaneously and significantly tightening border security. The two should even go hand in hand quite rationally, with something significant for both sides.

But many Republicans prefer to grandstand than resolve the problem. On Monday, Texas adopted a law authorising state police to arrest anyone suspected of unauthorised crossing from the border with Mexico.

The new law, which will certainly be subject to immediate and powerful legal challenges on constitutional grounds, seeks to transfer to local police officers authority over immigration law enforcement that has heretofore been regarded as strictly a matter for the national government. Penalties will range from 180 days in jail to 20 years in prison, and magistrate judges must order migrants to return to Mexico, with up to 20-year sentences for judges who decline.

It's good politics for Republicans to hammer away at immigration – although it's indefensible to hold hostage crucially important aid to a highly beleaguered and endangered Ukraine, especially for a phony passion recently acquired from Mr Trump and his nativist fans.

No matter how galling that may be, this imbroglio gives Mr Biden and the Democrats an opportunity to do something widely popular on a dangerous issue that they can take to the American people next year to counter inevitable Republican claims that the Democrats don't care about "the crisis at the border." That's cynical hyperbole on both counts, but the US immigration system is badly broken, and it behooves both parties to start fixing it.

Published: December 20, 2023, 4:53 PM