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America can't keep trading a real path to citizenship for unachievable border security

Immigration reform has been in stasis since the late 1980s. No more.
Photo illustration of an image of asylum seeking mothers carrying their children juxtaposed over the U.S. Capitol.
We can't keep having the same debate.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Reuters; Getty

The House passed two major immigration bills Thursday, the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. But it's still going to be hard to escape the permanent stasis we've been stuck in since President Ronald Reagan's big immigration overhaul in the late 1980s.

It amazes me that the framework of the immigration debate has been almost exactly the same for the just over 30 years I've been alive. At this point, it's tired and stale, and I'm ready for us — the media, politicians, Americans all — to change how we talk about immigration.

On one side, you have activists and advocates who point to the lack of a path to citizenship for low-wage workers who've been in the United States for years, an immigration court system that's straining at the seams and a refusal to deal with the root causes of immigration from Central America and Mexico.

On the other side, you have people who would convince their listeners that the border is porous, that the U.S. is full up and can't accept any more newcomers and that the only solution is a constant and ever-increasing militarization of the border. This latter group is very loud, and it has only been growing, especially in Congress, over the last decade.

As a result, any shift to highlight and center the humanity of people seeking opportunity in the U.S. has been met with a chest-thumping promise to harden the border and increase border security. It's what we saw when the last comprehensive reform had a chance of passing in 2013. For all the mean things I've written about the Senate, a bipartisan immigration bill made it out of there with votes to spare — only to die because of House Republicans' obstruction.

That bill was pitch-perfect between the two camps, according to a New York Times summary, providing "a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, as well as tough border security provisions that must be in place before the immigrants can gain legal status." Among the provisions that won over GOP senators was the addition of "$40 billion over the next decade to border enforcement measures, including adding 20,000 Border Patrol agents and 700 miles of fencing along the southern border." But that wasn't good enough for the House GOP, which refused to even take up the bill.

Fast-forward to today. We've lived through the Trump administration's successful efforts to tangle up, divert and otherwise mitigate immigration of both the legal and unauthorized sorts, weaponizing what had already been a broken system. Now one side appears to have shaken off the cobwebs to at least consider a new way forward.

He doesn't want to talk about legal immigration or the people who are already here — he wants the fear.

Imagine my relief when looking through the immigration reform bills Democrats have introduced found nothing in the way of expanded power for the Border Patrol or Customs and Border Protection. There's nothing about hiring more people to arrest or detain people; instead, the bills call for training more Border Patrol officials to provide crossers with medical care. And its main provision focuses on providing an eight-year path to citizenship for people who arrived before Jan. 1.

On the Republican side of the aisle, things haven't changed. At all. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., took a trip to the border to take a swing at the Biden administration for relaxing former President Donald Trump's immigration policies.

Wildly, he claimed that border agents told him that they'd captured people with ties to "Yemen, Iran, Sri Lanka, that's what's coming across. They even talked about Chinese, as well." (The Trump State Department said as recently as 2019 that there was no evidence that any terrorist group had tried to send operatives across the border.)

"This should frighten every American family. Even one suspected terrorist who gets into our country is too great a risk for our country and our nation's security," McCarthy said in a news conference Thursday.

McCarthy is being ham-handed here, waving around a point that works better as subtext. He doesn't want a deal. He doesn't want to talk about legal immigration or the people who are already here — he wants the fear. He and his acolytes in the House are in the same place they were in in 2013, and they have only tied themselves more firmly to white grievance politics and fearmongering about immigrants.

That's why hammering home enforcement is such a win — it creates space for a self-perpetuating problem that only more enforcement can solve. There is no way to fully secure the border so nobody gets through; demanding that set an impossible goal that the Democrats tried to meet for years. And then, when their own policies fail, they say it's because we just didn't try hard enough.

To wit: In May 2019, migrant apprehensions at the border hit their highest since 2014, the year of the Obama-era unaccompanied child crisis. Republicans could read those data as a success, as in: "Oh wow, look at all the people that got turned away. I guess we're doing a good job here." Instead, it's more convenient to conclude the opposite and argue what's basically a counterfactual: to say that the number of apprehensions shows that even more security is needed, because who knows how many got through.

It's cynical and it's transparent, and, more depressing, too often media coverage of immigration gives up nuance in favor of highlighting GOP complaints about border security. The least we can do when we highlight these important stories is to be mindful that while we want to be fair, we have no obligation to peddle this particular brand of Republican fear. We don't have to use language that compares immigrants to overwhelming flows of water that threaten to drown us: a "surge" of migrants, the "flow" of immigrants, a "new wave" of arrivals. By and large, these are people who are looking for better lives. Let's not ignore that in the name of currying favor with politicians who treat them like a nuisance or, worse, a threat.

There is, though, at least a thin chance that there might be a break in the cycle this time. Both immigration bills passed in the House on Wednesday with at least some Republican support. Now they go over to the Senate — let's see whether at least some of the GOP on that side of the Capitol can find it in themselves to try something new.