America’s immigration system is broken beyond repair


Asylum-seeking migrants try to cross a barbed wire that was placed by members of the Texas National Guard on the banks of the Rio Bravo river, the border between the United States and Mexico. Photograph:(Reuters)

Unanimity is an extremely rare commodity in the deeply divided United States but there is one sensitive issue on which politicians of all stripes agree: the country’s immigration system is broken. That has been a common complaint for more than three decades but no solution is in sight.

It’s not for lack of public concern about the way things are in a nation of immigrants. Type in the phrase “America and broken immigration system” for a google search and you get a whopping 51 million results. Try “comprehensive immigration reform” and up come more than 30 million.

The latter is a common aim. It has not been achieved because of wildly conflicting ideas on where to start and what to fix. Meanwhile, it is easy to find dysfunction and puzzling disparities all along a complicated system which features 185 different types of visas under two broad categories – immigrant and non-immigrant.

Wait times for an appointment to apply even for a tourist visa can be long and differ sharply from country to country and city to city. The latest Wait Times List issued by the Department of State on January 12, for example, shows that a resident of Mumbai needs to wait 571 days. In Beijing, just 18 days. Mexico City, 638 days.

Wait times for other types of visas, for study or temporary work sponsored by an employer, usually take less time. But applicants are often turned away. According to an analysis by the Chamber of Commerce last summer, just one out of three people applying for work visas was accepted; one out of four applicants for highly-skilled work made the cut.

Which is among the reasons why foreigners enter, or try to enter, the United States illegally either by overstaying their visitors’ visas or by crossing the southern border with Mexico.

Add tens of thousands who flee poverty or violence in their home country and you understand an exasperated assertion by US President Joe Biden during a summit this month with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, America’s southern and northern neighbours: “Our entire hemisphere is experiencing unprecedented levels of migration – greater than any time in history.”

This is most glaringly obvious on the border with Mexico, where tens of thousands have crossed into the US in recent months, either illegally across deserts or the border river or through official points of entry where they surrender to Border Patrol agents to ask for political asylum.

Cities on the US side of the border, such as El Paso, simply lack the facilities to cope with the onslaught which led to scenes more familiar from conflict-torn countries, with dozens of people sleeping on the streets, huddled under blankets.

When it comes to discussing immigration reform, the focus of America’s political right is almost exclusively on the southern border which Republicans decry as a gateway for drugs, criminals and terrorists. The Biden administration stands accused of neglecting the problem and failing to make enough of a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers.

They have a right to apply for asylum under international laws developed in the wake of World War II and the holocaust when countries pledged to welcome people who had legitimate fears for their lives.

The Department of Homeland Security defines it this way: “An individual will be found to have a credible fear of persecution if he or she establishes that there is a ‘significant possibility’…that he or she has been persecuted or has a well-founded fear or persecution or harm on account of her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” The decision is up to an immigration judge.

Genuine asylum seekers make up relatively small number of the 2.4 million people apprehended at the border in the fiscal year that ended last September. For many years, the bulk of the border crossers were Mexicans. Now, the majority are from Central America along with a wide array of people from around the world. Even from India, whose citizens traditionally preferred migration to less distant countries. In the past 16 months alone, a record 16,290 Indian citizens were taken into custody at the border, way up from the previous record of 8,997 in 2018.

The last immigration reform designed to be comprehensive, dates back to 1986 in the administration of a Republican president, Ronald Reagan. The Immigration Reform and Control Act legalised 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, tightened border security and provided for sanctions against employers who “knowingly” hired illegal workers.

Reagan’s reforms were supposed to halt the influx of such workers but it failed, largely because employers in need of cheap labour used flexible interpretations of the work “knowingly” and insisted they were not immigration enforcement agents.

Since 1986, there have been several piecemeal attempts to come to grips with immigration, none noticeably effective. Now that the border again is the focus of attention, the term “comprehensive” is back in the Washington political vocabulary.

But there is an absence of ideas acceptable to both ends of the political spectrum on how to deal with the estimated 11.5 million undocumented workers already in the country, many of them for decades and leading productive lives; how to deal with more than 600,000 people who were brought to America as children by their illegal border crosser parents; how to make it easier for people on work or study visas to stay and become citizens.

Hard-liners on the political right, who gained more influence in the House of Representatives after the mid-term elections last November, are opposed to almost all immigration. The flip side of such attitudes were spelt out by US Labor Secretary Martin Walsh at the World Economic Forum in Davos in mid-January.

“We need immigration reform in America,” he told the forum. “Right now we don’t have a good immigration policy. There are jobs available right now in the US that we don’t have enough people for. The threat to the American economy long-term is not inflation, it’s about immigration. It’s not having enough workers.”


by Bernd Debusmann

scalabrinian spirituality 2023


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