Immigration conundrum: On diversity, migration and the American Dream

The American Dream is struggling to remain a vision premised on diversity and migration

Updated - March 20, 2021 02:16 am IST

Published - March 18, 2021 12:02 am IST

It is unlikely that President Joe Biden ever imagined that it would be a cakewalk to undo some of the most damaging policies implemented by his predecessor Donald Trump, but even he might not have anticipated how quickly the thorny question of immigration reform could spiral into a full-blown crisis. In recent weeks, an unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.’s southern border has pushed the need for comprehensive reform, front and centre. The sudden spike in their numbers in U.S. custody — over 4,000, according to reports — is already wearing federal resources thin. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas struck a grim note when he said the U.S. was “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years”. Complicating the entire exercise is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it impossible to take down a Trump-era emergency rule that gives border agents the authority to summarily turn away most migrants other than unaccompanied minors, denying them the right to have their asylum claims heard. In a sense, the mounting crisis is related to a sweeping immigration reform proposal unveiled by Mr. Biden’s administration a month ago, as well as smaller bills that the Democrat-controlled Congress could pass with less resistance, including measures to quicken the process for grant of legal status to agriculture workers and “Dreamers”, or undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children.

There are also plans under way to redress the ills of the legal migration system, many obstacles to which were erected by the Trump White House, including a controversial rule to raise mandatory minimum pay for foreign workers on the H-1B visa for skilled immigrants that is largely granted to Indian nationals. Similarly, some analysts have estimated that the Biden administration’s proposed immigration bill could potentially increase annual ‘green card’ or permanent residency numbers by 35%. Mr. Biden’s broader, omnibus immigration legislation proposal includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants and the use of hi-tech systems for border patrol enforcement. The right, led by the vocal Congressional Republican minority, has attacked all such proposals as not being tough enough and encouraging the border surge, whereas the left, led by Democrats such as Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have taken on Mr. Biden for not being humane enough. The intractable immigration conundrum that the country has wrestled with from its very inception is whether the American Dream is an inclusivist vision of economic growth premised on embracing diversity and skilled migration, or whether the Trumpian ‘America First’ battle cry for nativist populism will carry the day. What Mr. Biden does in the months ahead will help answer this question.

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