It is difficult to find an issue that more exemplifies the dysfunction of American government today than immigration.
In the past year, more than a million people have entered the United States through the southern border, overflowing shelters and straining public services. Most of the newcomers claim asylum, a status that allows them to be in the country legally but leaves them in limbo. They often must wait years for their cases to be heard, and it can be a lengthy process to obtain legal permission to work.
This nation has long drawn strength from immigration, and providing asylum is an important expression of America’s national values. But Congress has failed to provide the necessary resources to welcome those who are eligible and to turn away those who are not. Instead, overwhelmed immigration officials allow nearly everyone to stay temporarily, imposing enormous short-term costs on states and cities that the federal government hasn’t done enough to mitigate.
Vice President Kamala Harris and others have correctly identified corruption and instability in Central and South America as reasons many people continue to flee their homes, and the United States should do what it can to help countries with these challenges. But that is not an answer to the disruption that this recent wave of people is causing in American communities right now.
The federal government’s negligence is fueling anger against immigrants and stoking divisions. The question is whether Congress, mired in dysfunction, can stir itself to enact sensible changes so the nation can reap the benefits of immigration.
Neither party has come up with a solution that is both practical and compassionate. Many in the Republican Party want to return to the Trump-era policies of strictly curtailing refugee and asylum admissions and requiring many people to stay in Mexico while their asylum cases are heard. Some Republicans still embrace the fiction that building a huge wall would solve everything, despite abundant evidence that it would be ineffective in stopping people from coming to the border. On Thursday the Biden administration moved to expand that wall as well.
Some lawmakers on the left have tried to ignore or downplay the extent of this challenge. Illegal border crossings by families, while they are a small portion of the total number of people entering the United States, are rising. The consequences of allowing huge numbers of asylum seekers to enter without sufficiently providing for them are real. The result is not only relentless pressure on the immigration system at the border and elsewhere but also a devastating failure to protect people from smugglers, who have made sneaking people into the United States a big business, or from exploitation after they arrive.
Congress can raise the level of legal immigration — by increasing the quotas for employment visas and other categories that allow people to come to the United States legally and have the chance to become permanent residents and then citizens. Those targets have been too low for too long, particularly for people who can fill gaps in the labor market. In July there were more than two million open positions, for example, in construction, hospitality and retail, and the current system keeps out many engineers, computer programmers and scientists. To change that, Congress would need to act and to establish new quotas that more accurately reflect the level of immigration that Americans want and can reasonably accept.
The country has already seen the consequences of keeping legal immigration artificially low. The Trump administration, even before the pandemic, dramatically decreased its annual quota for refugees and made many other forms of legal immigration much harder to get. Even worse, the administration removed children from their parents in a cruel attempt at deterrence. That inhumane policy also didn’t work, as people continued to travel north to present themselves at the border to make asylum claims. Those numbers rose every year of Mr. Trump’s presidency, with the exception of 2020, and the result was chaos.
While the Biden administration has mostly ended the policy of family separation, it has been slow in resettling refugees, has not pushed for raising quotas for most other forms of legal immigration and has offered no sustainable, long-term solution to the challenge of illegal immigration. Last year the administration ended the remain-in-Mexico policy and tried to make it easier for people to apply for asylum from their home countries. Nevertheless, the number of asylum seekers has continued to soar. The asylum program was never meant to be a vehicle for large-scale immigration and still needs an overhaul, as this board has argued.
Then there is the question of how to support those who have already arrived in the United States. It’s also difficult to find political heroes here.
There were the cynical tactics deployed by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and others who decided to transport thousands of immigrants to Democratic-led cities and states to see if they would maintain their longstanding posture of openness in the face of a sudden surge of newcomers. As despicable as this ploy was, it worked.
More than 145,000 people have traveled to New York State from the southern border over the past year, and the scale of this latest round of immigration has tested New York’s fortitude and its historic embrace of newcomers; as of 2021, about one in three people in New York City was born in another country.
The current crisis has shown how difficult it can be to absorb waves of new people without adequate processes or the resources to back them up. Many of the new immigrants have come without family or other community ties, and the surge of people without a place to stay has strained the city’s shelter system, when the New York region already was struggling with a shortage of affordable housing. A right-to-shelter mandate dating back four decades requires the city to provide a bed to anyone who needs one, and of the more than 115,200 people in city shelters, about half are asylum seekers.
Mayor Eric Adams has responded to this challenge with increasingly sharp, ominous statements. “This issue will destroy New York City,” he said on Sept. 6. “Every community in this city is going to be impacted,” he continued. “The city we knew, we’re about to lose.” Demonizing populations of people is dangerous and will not help the city respond to their needs, even if the mayor is right to raise the alarm and insist on more federal aid.
President Biden announced on Sept. 20 that his administration will extend temporary work permits to nearly half a million Venezuelans, a concession to intense pressure from Mr. Adams and other state and city leaders from his own party who find their communities overwhelmed.
That will help some businesses that are desperate for more workers. But Mr. Biden’s reluctance is understandable; expanding work authorization without addressing America’s broken immigration system will do little to deter people from trying to cross the U.S. border unlawfully or to seek asylum, and it gives Congress a pass.
Some Republican leaders have stepped up to offer help. Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah and Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana wrote an essay in The Washington Post in February offering to sponsor immigrants, citing more than 300,000 job vacancies between the two states. “In meaningful ways, every U.S. state shares a border with the rest of the world, and all of them need investment, markets and workers from abroad,” they wrote. “That border can remain an embarrassment, or it can become a big asset to us once again.”
For that to happen, leaders in Congress will have to do their part. It’s been a decade since Congress has seriously considered immigration reform. Both parties have missed opportunities to do so, the Democrats most recently at the end of 2022. The party had a narrow majority in Congress but failed to pursue a compromise bill that would have increased funding for border security as well as expanding capacity to hear and decide asylum claims quickly. The future of DACA, a program for those who were brought to the United States as children, is also in doubt, despite its broad public support.
The White House is limited in the actions it can take; Mr. Biden may have exhausted what he can do through his executive authority. Until Congress decides to take meaningful action, America will continue to pay a price.
Source photograph by Busara, via Getty Images.