Republicans are going to ridicule the idea and will likely declare it dead on arrival. But they would subject a more modest proposal to the exact same treatment. Biden is right to start by demanding the reforms the country actually needs, rather than make some sort of tentative opening bid that leaves the situation of most resident noncitizens unaddressed.
The fact is that the undocumented are not going away. They are not going to “self-deport,” as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) famously suggested when he was running for president in 2012. They perform necessary jobs, they pay all kinds of taxes, they are at least as law-abiding as full-fledged citizens, and they are woven into the fabric of communities from coast to coast. In all but the formal sense, they are Americans. If they were all to somehow disappear tomorrow, the nation would suffer from their absence.
Since the Reagan amnesty, the way our political system has dealt with the undocumented could be described, with apologies to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as “malign neglect.” President Barack Obama did give some measure of security to almost 800,000 migrants who were brought here without papers as children. Beyond that, however, the undocumented have been treated more like political props than living, breathing human beings, much less as neighbors.
Donald Trump used anti-immigrant demagoguery to launch his presidential campaign, accusing the people who hoped to make their homes here of being “rapists” and “bad hombres” and calling — nonsensically — for all of them to be sent back to their home countries, where they would “go to the back of the line” for readmission to the United States. He used them as scapegoats whom the “Make America Great Again” crowd could blame for the nation’s ills. Republican senators who once believed in reality-based immigration reform, such as Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), stopped resisting the party’s xenophobia and came to embrace it.
Democrats sought political advantage by being seen as anti-anti-immigration, seeking support by opposing GOP initiatives such as Trump’s border wall. Yet they were disappointed to see Trump’s share of the Hispanic vote actually grow from 2016 to 2020 — demonstrating, in my view, that theatrical demonstrations of solidarity are no substitute for coming up with policies that voters believe would actually improve their lives.
Are we really going to continue like this indefinitely? Are we going to consign 11 million people to an extralegal existence because our politicians find it advantageous to argue about their fate?
Biden’s proposal would allow farmworkers, migrants brought here as children and those who have “temporary protected status” because of threats in their homelands to apply for citizenship in three years. The rest of the undocumented would have to wait eight years to apply to be citizens. All would have to pass background checks; and the amnesty — let’s call it what it is — would cover only those in the country before Jan. 1 of this year to prevent a new surge of people trying to cross the border.
Would Biden settle for legislation that normalized the status of only some of the undocumented, but not all of them? He has already said he doesn’t want to but might. Would he accept whatever scraps of reform that could be achieved through the Senate’s reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes instead of 60? If it came to that, he wouldn’t have a choice.
But the Biden administration has shown a refreshing insistence on negotiating with the opposition rather than with itself. In seeking covid-19 relief, for example, Biden is asking for $1.9 trillion rather than some less eye-popping amount. When he lays out his plans for improving the nation’s infrastructure and making the transition to green energy, he is expected to request even more. Polls show that voters want bipartisanship and compromise — but the first crucial step in that process is defining the range of possibilities.
Biden is asking not for a few minimal immigration fixes but for a comprehensive solution. This is a president who wants more than a return to the old ways: He’s shooting for a truly new normal.