We Need To Make The Moral Case For Immigration

The Democrats are considering implementing Trumpian new immigration restrictions. This is utterly unacceptable and should shock the conscience.

The New York Times reports that Joe Biden is “considering sweeping restrictions on migration” in a “seismic shift” from the usual pro-immigrant Democratic position. In order to secure new funding for Israel and Ukraine, Biden has shown an openness to implementing harsh new Trumpian measures to crack down on immigration. Nicole Narea of Vox says that “it’s hard to overstate the potential destructiveness of the sweeping changes to US immigration policy currently being discussed,” which include “rolling back America’s historical commitments to asylum seekers and implementing a new system to crack down on undocumented immigrants already in the US.” 

The measures under consideration include “a new legal authority that would allow the US to rapidly expel migrants arriving on the border without processing their asylum claims” which “would be similar to the Trump-era Title 42 policy, which operated on the grounds of temporarily curbing the spread of Covid-19, but without the pandemic-related rationale — and permanent.” Furthermore, “the US would be able to subject immigrants anywhere in the US to expedited removal, beyond the 100-mile perimeter of the border in which the authority currently applies.” The deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project says there would be new provisions for “detaining and deporting [immigrants] within 48 hours without a hearing.” Those seeking asylum would have a higher burden of proof placed on their claims, and immigrants awaiting hearings would be kept in prisons (“detention facilities”) while awaiting their court hearings.

Joe Biden has shown few consistent political principles across his career, with his policies tending to shift in response to outside pressure. The Times tells us that the Biden shift on immigration (when campaigning, he described Trump’s policies as inhumane and promised to reverse them) is in part because “some of the country’s most prominent Democratic governors and mayors, whose communities are being stressed by the cost of providing for migrants, have put pressure on Mr. Biden.” There are “a record number of migrants heading north to escape gang violence, poverty and natural disasters,” and so there is a growing desire to send them back to face gang violence, poverty, and natural disasters. Public opinion has become more anti-immigrant—in 2020 only 28 percent of Americans thought immigration ought to be decreased, while today the number is 41 percent. (Note, however, that the majority of Americans still believe that immigration numbers should stay the same or even increase, meaning that the new crackdown is not actually being demanded by the public.) Immigrant rights groups and prominent Democratic Latino politicians have been especially horrified that Biden is considering Trumpian immigration restrictions. 

They’re right to stand firm against this. Keeping families in prisons while their claims are processed is totally inhumane and unnecessary. Deporting people without hearings denies them basic due process and will result in people with legitimate asylum claims being sent back to their deaths. There have been horrible cases where migrants denied asylum and deported by the U.S.have been murdered (just as they said they would be). “Raising the evidentiary barrier” to asylum claims means disbelieving more people who say they are going to be murdered and is virtually guaranteed to result in more deadly “errors” (I hesitate to call them that, since they will be the predictable result of the policy, and therefore hardly a mistake.) 

Importantly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, whatever new immigration enforcement powers are introduced may soon be handed over to Donald Trump. I cannot emphasize this enough, because many Democrats who understood how dangerous these powers were when Trump was president seem to have entirely forgotten this under Biden. You might trust Joe Biden’s administration not to abuse the power to detain and deport people anywhere in the United States without a hearing. (I don’t think you should, but let’s set that aside.) But Donald Trump is promising to build vast immigration camps, round up unauthorized immigrants by the millions, and kick them out of the country. He’s very serious about this. He says they are “poisoning the blood of our country,” which is the kind of shit that Hitler said. And currently he is substantially in the lead in the 2024 polling, meaning that we should all be planning as if a second Trump presidency is quite likely to be in our future. Every new enforcement power that is granted to the executive branch is likely to be placed in his hands. I’m putting this in bold, and italicizing it. I would like every Democrat thinking of supporting this “compromise” to remember it. 

Amazingly, there are some Democrats who seem delighted that this is happening. David Axelrod says that the fact that Republicans are withholding Ukraine aid until they get immigration restrictions is “almost a gift to have, under the cover of this broad package, to be able to do things that were perhaps tougher to do before.” But the thing that is “tougher to do before” was to turn away people fleeing persecution, and round up random immigrants doing difficult jobs to send them back to countries they may have hardly any connection to (and where some will die alone and desperate like poor Jimmy Aldaoud did). Do you remember back in 2019 when Mississippi children came home to find that their parents had been rounded up by ICE? We’re going to see a lot more of that. 

Worse, this compromise isn’t even getting anything progressive. Part of it is aid to Israel—that is, weapons for a homicidal racist state engaged in ethnic cleansing (although a lack of such draconian immigration policies never stopped us from sending massive amounts of military aid to Israel over the last half century). Some of it is for aid to Ukraine, aid which would be unnecessary if the Biden administration had ever shown any interest in pursuing a diplomatic settlement to the war. Apparently, measures to help immigrants aren’t being considered. Maybe instead of making it easier to deport people, we could make it easier for them to become citizens, which they clearly deserve to be. I am still stunned by how ungrateful American citizens can be for people who are often literally cleaning their shit and baking their bread. Some three-quarters of respondents surveyed by Pew Research in 2020 have gone on the record saying that undocumented immigrants “mostly fill jobs U.S. citizens do not want.” As Anthony Bourdain, who spent years working alongside immigrants in restaurant kitchens and understood how that industry runs on the labor of the undocumented, once pointed out, “If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he’s talking about right now, every restaurant in America would shut down.” Agriculture and construction are also highly dependent upon the labor of the undocumented.

This gets us to the importance of reviving a forceful moral case for the rights of immigrants. Immigrants are often politically expendable; because they can’t vote, it’s easy for politicians to sacrifice them. And when there are waves of migrants to cities, it’s easy for politicians to demagogue on the issue and say: look at this disaster, this crisis, we must get rid of these people, we need to empower the state, we need to build a wall. 

We need to fight this fear-mongering aggressively and to stand strong for the rights of our undocumented sisters and brothers. Bridges not walls. If it’s tough for cities to accommodate the influx of migrants, the solution isn’t to send those migrants back (they wouldn’t have risked the journey if they didn’t have good reason to leave). The solution is to figure out how to accommodate those migrants. In other words, let’s begin from the presumption that we are a humane country, a sanctuary that welcomes those in need. And let’s figure out how to best act on that principle. The policy response to new waves of migration should not be to try to stop it, but to make the process as smooth as possible for both the migrants themselves and the communities they join.

Plenty of Democrats will be all too happy to sell out immigrants. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, for instance, has supported new migration restrictions, declaring that he is “not a progressive.” (Previously he had declared: “I am a progressive.”) I have no doubt that Joe Biden will embrace Trump’s policies in the name of “compromise” (he previously kept Trump’s asylum restrictions in place, after all), and will help lay the groundwork for Trump’s massive arrest and deportation program during a second term. This should scare us, of course, but I also think we should not be hesitant to make the argument that restrictions on migration are morally the wrong way to deal with people “heading north to escape gang violence, poverty and natural disasters.” Let them in. At least 98 percent of Americans are immigrants or the descendents of immigrants. Many of those ancestors came at a time when there were no border restrictions at all, and anyone was invited in. We’re a richer country now than we ever were then, so there’s no reason we can’t integrate new people (nobody worries that we’re too “full” for people to have more babies, but immigrants are just “babies from elsewhere” and do not hurt the country just as having children doesn’t hurt the country). We should be a pro-immigrant country focused on legalizing the existing undocumented population (so they don’t have to live in constant fear) rather than finding ways to reduce the U.S. population through migration restrictions. 

PHOTO: Asylum seekers walk along the U.S.-Mexico border barrier on their way to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents on November 30, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Qian Weizhong/VCG via AP )


From “Responding to the Left Case Against Open Borders” (2018): 

When we talk about enforcing immigration laws, it’s important to be quite specific about what we mean. Immigration enforcement is not words on paper. It is a constant, daily sequence of concrete acts. It is kicking down people’s doors, it is putting people in handcuffs, it is taking people’s photographs and fingerprints, it is locking people in cages, it is forcing people into cars and buses and planes. Some of these acts happen at the border, when the government tries to block people from entering. Some of them happen inside the country, when the government hunts down those with irregular status. Sometimes, this immigration enforcement is explicitly violent, like when Border Patrol officials unleash tear gas (a chemical weapon banned in warfare) on toddlers, when they rip children from their mothers’ arms, when they kick women huddled on the concrete floors of border cells and scream at them that they are animals. Other times it’s something humdrum and largely invisible: the border guard who calmly tells an asylum seeker at a port of entry that there is “no more room” in the U.S., the judge who silently decides that the terrified person in front of them hasn’t done quite enough to deserve a favorable exercise of discretion, the police officer who has a funny habit of always stopping cars with Hispanic-looking drivers, the countless bureaucrats who review immigration applications and deny them without explanation. All of these acts, from the monstrous to the mundane, have real-world effects on individual people. They mean families separated, whether by deportation or by the hard border that keeps an undocumented breadwinner from ever again visiting the children he had to leave behind. They mean people dying horribly, because they are forced to return to life-threatening danger, or because they become ill in the U.S. and are scared to go to the hospital for fear their lack of status will be discovered. They mean workers exploited, because the threat of deportation keeps them under the thumb of their boss, or because arbitrary territorial lines prevent them from seeking better employment conditions in another place. Immigration policy in the United States cannot be discussed in the abstract. Unless we talk about what our immigration laws actually mean for people’s lives, we’ll have no way to sensibly evaluate them. 

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