Democrats haven’t managed anything resembling a cohesive national message regarding immigration, toggling wildly between voicing support for migrants and concern over their arrival. Photo: The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After much buildup, it seems like negotiations over an immigration restrictionist deal in Congress have collapsed, tepid denials from leadership notwithstanding. 

While this might be hand-waved away as just another attempt by Congress to do, well, much of anything, there’s a key distinction here from prior efforts related to the diffuse notion of “comprehensive immigration reform”(a term that has meant so many different things to so many different people over decades that it is rendered practically meaningless).

By and large, these efforts have three components: some liberal priority around regularization of immigrants already present and perhaps more assistance for them; some conservative priority around fortification of the border and increased internal enforcement, or additional detention; and a few more technical bipartisan planks to make the system as a whole run better, including the hiring of more immigration judges and maybe a simplification of the work visa processes that both business and labor tend to want.

Practically all negotiations in the last half-century have followed this mold, going back to the famous 1986 compromise, signed by conservative icon Ronald Reagan, that beefed up resources for Border Patrol and introduced stiffer penalties for employers of undocumented immigrants while providing a path to citizenship for some 3 million people. More recently, including throughout the Trump era, House and Senate negotiators have often landed on some variation of legalizing DREAMers and other vulnerable populations, bringing TPS (temporary protected status) recipients to a permanent status, increasing border technology and headcount, and funding more detention as a sort of trade-off.

This time, things are different. The acute negotiations got underway largely because Republicans refused to move on any Ukraine aid funding without a border component, and the talks landed pretty squarely around just how much they could extract. There really was no liberal component on the table here at any point — no regularization, nothing for DREAMers, little real assistance for arriving migrants. The only thing at issue was the extent of the restrictions, and on that front, hawkish Republicans were presented with options that they could only have dreamed of a few years ago.

Reinstating a Title 42-like policy

Among these was the formal reinstatement of a Title 42-like policy, now fully separated from the flimsy public health rationale that had undergirded it, to allow the executive branch to summarily expel migrants without asylum process. The agreement also reportedly could include a sort of tripwire of 5,000 asylum seekers a day before heavy restrictions went into effect, an expansion of expedited removal (which allows immigration agents to quickly remove people without court process), a raising of the legal bar to make an asylum case in the first place, and limiting the parole program that the White House has used to bring people in in a more orderly fashion.

That the GOP seems fully prepared to walk away from a deal that seems pretty close to the type of thing that would have formed the backbone of their own pie-in-the-sky proposal circa 2015 is a good indication of how the politics around this have changed. Both parties understand that there’s a souring of public opinion on immigration and humanitarian migration in particular, engineered in part by Republican operators like Texas Governor Greg Abbott, whose migrant busing campaign has been an extraordinarily effective political tool.

Democrats are panicking

They’ll never admit it, but Democrats are panicking. They haven’t managed anything resembling a cohesive national message, toggling wildly between voicing support for migrants and concern over their arrival. Biden went so far as to say that he would “shut down the border” if given the authority, a pronouncement that would have seemed unthinkable when he was running on presiding over a clean break from the Trump-era border obsession just four years ago.

Blue-state governors and mayors, led by NYC Mayor Eric Adams, are putting daily pressure on federal counterparts to pony up more money and tacitly endorsing the idea of more restrictions. The Biden administration’s paralysis on internal coordination of migrant placements and assistance, which it wrongly believed would keep it above the fray, has only created a public perception of disorder. And Trump, who against significant headwinds has maintained his stranglehold on the party, is clearly intent on running on the idea of immigration crisis yet again.

The upshot is that it seems like the House GOP — and potentially even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has always been ambivalent about Trump at best — are willing to turn away their own priorities to keep this as a more potent electoral issue. In maybe the most concerning twist yet, significant chunks of the institutional GOP are supporting Abbott in his current standoff with federal agents, during which the red-state governor has all but pledged to ignore federal law. In an ironic way, the apparent collapse of the negotiations is a boon to immigration advocates, who feared that some spur-of-the moment capitulation would get baked into federal law. Still, everyone’s skirting around what a “fix” would look like here because there really isn’t an obvious one.

Simply trying to increase enforcement to the point where people stop trying is a strategy that has been tried to varying extents and has failed essentially nonstop for the last thirty years. As I wrote recently for The New Republic, even what may seem like reasonable restrictions require accepting that some people who are otherwise eligible for humanitarian protections will be turned away. We have to keep in mind what this means beyond the technical language: getting turned back despite a valid asylum claim definitionally means someone being sent to potential death, imprisonment, torture.

Many migrants have began to leave shelters, secure jobs and integrate into their new homes. Photo: Niklas Herrmann

Yet does that mean everyone gets to come and stay indefinitely? That seems to be a pretty unpopular position and offends many people’s sense of rule of law. If we don’t have the infrastructure in place to expeditiously evaluate asylum claims but we know that not doing so can put people at risk, where does that leave us? For now, it seems we need better ways to actually manage the flows that exist. Here in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently unveiled an effort to connect newly work-authorized migrants with state jobs, following an earlier initiative intended to connect them with private-sector jobs.

The point of integration

Here and in other cities that have become destinations for migrants, we’re getting to the point that was always coming: they’re leaving shelter systems, getting jobs, finding apartments, and slowly integrating into their new homes. Looming asylum cases notwithstanding, this is what immigrants have always done, and the reality is we’ve had these intense political reactions to their arrival cyclically — in the 1850s, the 1920s, the 1990s, and so on. This, too, might pass.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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