American Impasse on Immigration

Will the American political establishment ever come to an understanding on immigration reform? During his time in office, President George W. Bush made substantial efforts to lay the foundation for a compromise that combined reinforcement of the Mexican border with new measures that aimed to create a system for temporary work permits for migrants and regularize the status of some 11 million people in the United States without legal permission. In the end, the only initiatives passed by Congress consisted of investing $10 billion in building walls and fences along the border and recruiting 3,000 additional border patrol officers.

Later, Barack Obama’s touching humanist speeches didn’t prevent him from being named the “deporter-in-chief” due to the record number of deportations of people in the U.S. illegally carried out during his presidency – some 3 million people, more than all previous presidents combined. He apparently hoped that these massive deportations would convince the Republican majority in Congress to open the door to measures that would regulate the status of people in the U.S. illegally who had been in the United States long enough to make a life and who were brought there as children. It was in vain. It was in this context that Obama had the intelligence to put words to action by using an executive order to legalize the presence of 800,000 “Dreamers” on American soil.* These immigrants arrived in the United States while they were still children – a program that Donald Trump had the unfathomable spitefulness to cancel a year ago, throwing into limbo hundreds of thousands of people whose contribution to the American economy and society is indisputable.

Trump pushed this spitefulness even further by allowing, in the name of his “zero tolerance” policy, the indefinite separation of children from their parents who illegally entered the United States. Never before has a president dared to go this far: More than 2,300 children sent to detention centers for weeks while their parents are brought before the court. This certainly infamous approach has drawn revulsion within the Republican Party. But even though it is the expression, pushed to the extreme, of the American political establishment’s 20-year incapacity to find a way to put the immigration system in order, the responsibility for this failure is collective. The commitment Trump made on Wednesday to sign “something” in order to avoid separating families won’t change any of the facts of this imbroglio. The executive order he finally signed midday only aimed to appease the storm of disapproval in the news. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” he explained. A surprising retreat despite everything, from a man not accustomed to getting flustered and whose anti-immigrant positions are a fundamental ingredient of his popularity among Americans who like him.

The zero tolerance flaunted by the president is a disgrace in that, contrary to his predecessors, it doesn’t plan to undertake any means to solve the broader issue of regularization. It is disgraceful because it comes down to trading the fate of children for building his wall.

The calculation is all the more appalling since it is likely made out of spite, primarily because Congress’ impasse is much too deep to be resolved on the basis of this blackmail. House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that there would be a vote Thursday on legislation that would regulate both the issue of the “Dreamers” and that of family separation. That is doubtful since a threesome, formed by the Democrats on one side and the moderate and conservative Republicans on the other, is profoundly contentious.

It is a bad calculation, above all, because the intensification of immigration action encouraged by Trump won’t discourage the immigrants, who for the most part are fleeing violence and misery in Central America, from crossing the border at all costs; or if it does so, will do very slightly. A similar approach, although less draconian, has been applied since 2005 within the framework of “Operation Streamline,” following the logic that prosecuting immigrants in the U.S. illegally would be a form of dissuasion. Studies are far from having demonstrated that making this a judicial problem will slow down the influx of immigration. This, it must be remembered, is proof that the solutions still lie ahead of us: They are being developed in countries where the rule of law, worthy of the name, originated. The same argument can be applied to Europe.

*Editor’s note: The DREAM Act – Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors – is congressional legislation that would allow young immigrants in the country illegally who were brought here as children to remain in the country if they meet certain criteria. The legislation has not yet been passed. Many refer to immigrants who would benefit from the DREAM Act as “Dreamers.”

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