On January 30, 2018, President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address. In that address, the president talked about his proposal for immigration reform. Although he touted the proposal as a bipartisan approach to reform, reaction has been tepid at best. Neither the proposal nor the reaction to it should come as a surprise. In the beginning days of the Trump Administration he laid out his intent to change the immigration landscape. He believed the primary weakness of border security included the absence of both a wall along the southern border of the United States and the absence of an effective process for the issuance of visas and other immigration benefits. In his address to America he put forth a four-part plan that actually began more than a year earlier.
As early as January 25, 2017 the president began laying out his plans to ensure interior immigration enforcement (including addressing sanctuary cities), improve border security, restrict travel into the United States and begin a review of U. S. visa programs through a series of executive orders and presidential memoranda. Soon thereafter the ranting began. Does the president know how his actions will play out on the world stage? Is he a puppet of the alt-right? Is the president a racist? Is he anti-Muslim? Is the travel ban legal? Democrats and Republicans alike may not agree with the president but there are some irrefutable facts that shouldn’t be ignored.
Immigration is one of the key lifelines to diversity in America – Alida Garcia
The first fact should be obvious – we must stop focusing so much on President Trump and look at the true question – is immigration a Latina issue as the prevailing rhetoric would have you believe? The answer, of course, is no. Immigrants come to the U. S. from across the globe. They are white, black, brown, Asian, African, European, Muslim, Catholic . . . well, you get the picture. That landscape begs another question – will immigration reform that restricts migration of people rather than improve the processes to manage the migration actually make America great again?
Our borders are porous; the terror threat is real; immigration courts are filled to capacity every day; the undocumented immigrant population requires attention; the number of people granted lawful permanent resident status (green cards) has remained relatively consistent for nearly all of the 21st century; and the Immigration and Nationality Act no longer serves the global footprint of today. On the other end of the spectrum we’ve seen a decrease in the number undocumented entries and an increase in deportations. Reform is needed and some of that work will be painful.
For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans.
President Donald J. Trump
The president isn’t exactly wrong in his statement that, for decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. However, contrary to the president’s claims, that doesn’t mean that immigrants (legal or undocumented) alone are responsible for that influx. Many, including some of our own government agencies, have been complicit in the movement of dangerous drugs into the United States. It can be argued that a failure to truly address the movement of drugs into the U.S. is a significant contributing factor to the development of street gangs in the country. On the other end of the spectrum the justice system systematically focused its resources in a strategy that disproportionally targeted those who were the victims of the smuggling rather than the smugglers. That targeting, disproportionately in communities of color, has been a significant factor in the degradation of families and communities all across the country.
During the State of the Union address the president put forth the following: a pathway to citizenship for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA recipients or Dreamers; building a wall on the southern border and increasing the number of immigration agents to secure the border; ending the diversity visa program and ending family-based visas.
Both critics and proponents of the president’s four-pillar immigration plan have spent far too much time on the DACA and travel ban debates. While both are significant components of the conversation about overhauling the nation’s immigration programs, the big picture is the work that has been ongoing in the Trump administration since its early days. Key components of that work has virtually gone unnoticed. In his first year in office, President Trump signed 55 executive orders (EO). Four of those orders (EO 13767, EO 13768, EO 13769 and EO 13780) were signed within weeks of the president taking office and specifically address immigration. While legal challenges have delayed implementation of critical provisions of EO 13769, many provisions of this group of executive orders have gone unchallenged and have become part of the mission of those executive branch agencies involved in immigration matters. They also form the basis of the four-pillar plan. Here are a few key provisions spelled out in those orders that moved forward:
- Sections 4(b) and 4(c) of EO 13767 orders the Secretary of Homeland Security to identify and allocate all sources of federal funding (including long term Congressional budget requests) to plan, design and construct a physical wall along the southern border of the United States.
- Section 10 of EO 13767 and Section 8 of EO 13768 issue orders to extend enforcement of immigration law to state and local law enforcement officers across the country.
- Section 4 of EO 13769 orders the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin review and revision of the adjudication process for immigration benefits.
- Section 5 of EO 13780 orders the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence to review and revise screening and vetting for all immigration programs.
- Section 8 of EO 13780 orders the Secretary of Homeland Security to expedite completion of a biometric entry and exit tracking system.
DACA – It’s Not Complicated
Let’s just say it out loud . . . children brought to the United States by their parents without reporting to an immigration official have not violated any provision of our immigration laws – their parents have. As a result, they should not be punished for their parents’ misdeeds. The concept of punishing them is simply against every American principle of fairness. We also have to accept the fact that DACA recipients aren’t just Mexican. According to Pew Research statistics, although more than nine-in-ten current DACA recipients were born in Latin America, overall Dreamers come from around the world.
We need legislation to address this issue. DACA legislation should not be a bartering point. It should stand alone, no caveats, no strings attached. The Obama administration could not get the legislation passed so deferred action became a method to address those affected. Deferring enforcement action against these individuals is simply a matter of exercising discretion, a basic practice in the American justice system. Rolling back DACA was simply another attempt at erasing the Obama legacy and not a matter of righting a wrong.
Securing the Border
With the never-ending rhetoric about Mexico paying for the wall, it wasn’t until there was a budget on the table that legislators, reporters and pundits seemed to accept that the administration had always planned on Americans funding the wall. Finally, people had begun to pay attention commensurate with the attention paid to the outrageousness of the first year of the administration. Even then the narrative became “defining” the wall. Still, no one pointed back to Section 4 of EO 13767.
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is complex. It is also in dire need of revision. For that reason, extending enforcement of this monstrous set of laws to state and local officers is often not as simple as it may seem. Programs like Secure Communities and 287(g), implemented to increase the number of officers enforcing immigration law. A major concern is that the programs are implemented in some areas and not others. For example, 287(g) agreements exist between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and only 59 partner law enforcement agencies in 17 states. What happens in the rest of the country? Are state and local law enforcement executives embracing these programs? Is the 4-week training course sufficient? Is the requisite infrastructure in place to support the programs? The metrics don’t address whether the state and local law enforcement officers dedicated to these programs are actually receiving the necessary support from local ICE offices. The metrics may indicate success but the impact these programs have on state and local offices that are already struggling to protect and serve their communities is often misunderstood. These are the questions we must ask about these programs.
Likewise, hiring, training and deploying the number of border agents proposed is not an easy task. These men and women investigate, apprehend and remove undocumented migrants. It’s an important job and finding the right people takes the same dedication to screening as this administration wants when looking at who to let into the country. That means that full, complete and accurate background investigations for security clearances are a must. That takes time. Sometimes a year or more. Then you have the limits of the training academy. Currently, a training class for ICE criminal investigators, for instance, ranges between 30 – 60 candidates. The training takes just over 5 months to complete and the academy is limited on the number of concurrent training classes during that 5 month period. The sum total is that increasing the number of officers to enforce immigration law is, in itself, a monumental task.
We can talk about public safety and national security as reasons for reform of the nation’s immigration system but the true test is whether we want a diverse nation. Statistics show that the majority of people immigrating to the U. S. are people of color. They’re the ones who will continue the creation of a diverse nation. And that is a problem for those who understand that America is moving in the direction of a majority minority population . . . if such a thing actually exists. Mexico and the Muslim world have become the face of the conversation on immigration reform. It matters that America is stuck on vilification of people of color. Because managing the migration of people is never an easy task, how we continue our diversity is the real challenge.
Although the nation seems to want immigration reform, the conversation is largely about undocumented migrants – the people we call illegal aliens. “They take jobs from Americans. They are rapists, murderers and drug smugglers.” That’s the language associated with a small part of the immigrant population and it’s actually shaping the way Americans thinks about immigration. Immigration is a much larger conversation and the framework of that conversation has become vile, confusing and misleading. Visa lottery and chain migration – language used to paint a picture of recklessness, one of sheer chance and excess aren’t the actual names of the immigration programs they’re meant to represent. They are monikers of manipulation.
Immigration – A Diversity Program
In 2016, nearly 44 million immigrants lived in the United States and accounted for approximately 13.5% of the nation’s total population of 323.1 million people. These numbers include naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents (LPRs), certain legal nonimmigrants (e.g., persons on student or work visas), those admitted as refugees or granted asylum status, as well as persons illegally residing in the United States. According to the U. S. Census Bureau’s 2017 Current Population Survey (CPS), immigrants and their U. S. born children make up 27% of the overall U. S. population with numbers topping 86 million people. And therein lies the real issue.
About 1.5 million immigrants moved to the United States legally during 2016. Contrary to popular belief, Mexicans did not make up the largest number of immigrants – India was the leading country of origin with 175,100 arriving immigrants followed by China/Hong Kong with 160,200. Although immigrants originating from Mexico accounted for 26 percent of the total 2016 immigrant population in the United States, only 150,400 Mexican nationals immigrated to the U. S. in 2016, a decrease for the third straight year.
The Department of State (DOS) administers the Diversity Visa Program. Although a lottery system is used to select qualified applicants, the Diversity Visa Program is far from a random lottery of unskilled, dangerous people unable to establish a basis for lawful entry into the United States. There are both educational and work requirements for those applying for diversity visas. While it is clear that the INA is in need of revision, claims that green cards issued in accordance with Section 203(c) of the INA are done so without regard for skill, merit or the safety of American citizens is clearly partisan rhetoric.
Contrary to popular belief, Mexicans did not make up the largest number of immigrants – India was the leading country of origin . . .
According to the Migration Policy Institute, 38.2 million immigrants were age 25 or older in 2016. About 30 percent (11.5 million) of them had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 32 percent of U.S.-born adults. That does not say that our immigration system suffers from a program admitting immigrants without regard for skill or merit. For the period between fiscal years 2012 and 2016 a 47 percent share of immigrants entering the country were college educated. Not exactly the unskilled field of immigrants many fear are entering the country.
Department of Homeland Security statistics shows that, over the past decade, only an average of 4.4 percent of all green cards issued were to immigrant that qualified under the Diversity Visa Program. A small percentage (2.9 %) were legally residing in the U. S. in a nonimmigrant status at the time they were selected for legal permanent residency. It is surprising, to say the least, that such a small number would represent the urgency typically attached to the program.
Could country of origin be the real issue here? For instance, in fiscal year 2016, diversity visas were granted to just over 20,137 Africans. Another 15,503 diversity visas were granted to Asians. Those figures represent a 40.4 percent and 31 percent share, respectively, of all diversity visas issued in fiscal year 2016. Is ending this program really a reform that will have a significant impact on jobs, public safety or national security?
Family-based visas, much like diversity visas, have been negatively characterized using inflammatory language. In this case “chain migration”. The administration’s goal of protecting the nuclear family seems lost in its definition of the nucleus as spouse and minor children only. The question here is whether further restriction on family-based immigration make America great again.
During fiscal years 2008 through 2016, immigrants granted legal permanent resident status through family-based visas accounted for roughly 21 percent of all green cards issued during that period. The overwhelming majority of green cards (45%) went to the immediate relatives of U. S. citizens. Not quite the sense of urgency one would expect based on the administration’s call to limit sponsorship to spouses and minor children. The 2016 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, published by the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, lists immediate relatives of U. S. citizens as spouses, children and parents – a far cry from an “. . . unlimited number of distant relatives”.
What makes America great? Diversity. Immigration is one of the key lifelines to diversity in America. Our debate about immigration reform must take a different path. First, we must end the use of inflammatory language that paints a picture of immigration being a one dimensional public safety/national security issue. Then we must be committed to reform that improves the process rather than wall off those who can bring strength and progress to our country.
Questions about our immigration processes are good . . . even necessary. They lead to awareness, understanding and maybe even acceptance. Then, and only then, will we have the opportunity to determine whether our public safety and national security are in jeopardy.