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Opinion Biden just outmaneuvered MAGA Republicans — and they barely noticed

President Biden in the Oval Office of the White House on Jan. 17. (Al Drago/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
5 min

If President Biden rolls out a major new pro-immigrant policy, and MAGA Republicans don’t make any noise about it, did the announcement happen at all?

Why, yes, it did. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas unveiled an initiative on Friday that would extend more protection against deportation to undocumented immigrants who report labor rights violations by employers.

This is a big move by the administration, one long sought by immigration advocates. Biden’s immigration record is decidedly mixed, but this would address a serious problem: Undocumented migrant workers often fear reporting workplace violations — ones they were victims of or just witnessed — because it could lead to their deportation.

Now they will have improved access to a legal process that can defer their deportations for two years and potentially extend them work permits. The hope: To encourage them not just to report unsafe or exploitative working conditions, but also to cooperate with ongoing Labor Department investigations, improving working standards for all workers.

So far, this policy has sparked relatively little outrage among MAGA Republicans and right-wing media. Yet it has hallmarks that typically anger the right. It would allow some migrants here unlawfully to remain in the U.S. interior, based on the use of prosecutorial discretion to defer deportations, something the right has long raged against.

What explains the quiet response? It might be that this change creates an awkward political situation for the anti-immigrant right, one that says a good deal about its ideology and its limitations.

Here’s why: This policy attempts to align the interests of undocumented workers with those of native-born workers. For some on the right, casting those interests as irrevocably in conflict has been essential to their project. This zero-sum agitprop packages the nativist impulse to drastically limit immigration as all about protecting the American worker.

But this new move undermines that rhetoric. In describing the shift, Mayorkas took pains to note that it will facilitate holding “exploitative employers” accountable for taking advantage of vulnerable workers who are in the U.S. lawfully. Mayorkas added: “Employers who play by the rules are disadvantaged by those who don’t.”

In other words, allowing undocumented migrants to speak out about exploitative labor violations without fear of retribution helps aboveboard employers and U.S. workers, too.

Chris Newman, general counsel of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, has long argued this would help resolve perceived conflicts between migrants and U.S. workers. “It removes the pernicious incentive for predatory employers to hire undocumented immigrants with the intent to abuse them,” Newman told me.

“All workers, whether documented or undocumented, have an interest in being compensated, in not being abused, in being able to blow the whistle,” immigration lawyer David Leopold added. When the undocumented are exploited, Leopold said, “that brings down the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers as well.”

Republicans might yet strongly oppose this policy. They might argue it’s an abuse of executive power, or that it will harm mom-and-pop small-business owners. This is how Republicans attack Biden’s effort to expand IRS crackdowns on wealthy tax cheats, as The Post’s Catherine Rampell details: By pretending it’s about protecting small businesses.

But just as the tax move forces Republicans to defend wealthy tax cheats (while pretending not to), this immigration move could maneuver Republicans into defending exploitative employers (also while pretending not to). It will be hard for Republicans to attack this policy without lying about it or revealing deeply unpopular priorities.

Some might argue that employers who hire undocumented workers without exploiting them are also bad actors. But after we relied on millions of undocumented migrants to perform essential work during the pandemic, it’s self-evident that many non-exploitative employers are hiring undocumented migrants because of our disastrously structured system, which makes it harder to work here legally. We should make it easier.

In fact, some Republicans do support making that easier, particularly for farmworkers. Though there are fewer such Republicans these days, they’re distinct from MAGA Republicans whose demagoguery about the migrant threat is bottomless.

Which highlights another way this move challenges MAGA Republicans. Many are so focused on demagoguing about the border — as a symbol of the supposed threat of demographic change — that they often have little of value to say about the real-world complexities created by millions of undocumented immigrants in the interior.

For instance, MAGA Republicans often talk a good game about deportations. But they all know we can’t deport 11 million people, especially ones who serve as essential workers. MAGA Republicans also rail against granting citizenship to “dreamers” brought here as children, refusing to entertain a worthwhile fix targeted at what the dreamers truly are — culturally American and would-be legal contributors to our country.

Now that the administration hopes to protect undocumented migrants who blow the whistle against exploitative employers, will MAGA Republicans attack it? If they do, they should be challenged to say why they oppose holding employers accountable for their abuses. That would make their lack of constructive solutions on immigration even more glaring.