WASHINGTON – At a recent White House ceremony honoring Hispanic heritage in the U.S., President Joe Biden spoke of how immigration has defined the nation and should be celebrated.
“We say it all the time, but that’s who we are,” Biden said. “That’s the nation. We are a nation of immigrants.”
Biden pledged himself to “fixing our immigration system for good.” He’s tackling near-term issues like reuniting migrant families separated during the previous administration and addressing clogs in the asylum system. And his border officials have worked to reduce the chaos along the U.S.-Mexico line.
But an increasingly divided nation can’t agree on what a longer-term fix to the system should look like -- basic questions like should there be more immigrants coming in, or fewer? And the future of key policies lies not with the White House or in the outcome of the midterm elections, but with the courts.
Just Wednesday, a federal appeals court ruling left in limbo the fate of more than 600,000 immigrants known as “dreamers” who came to the U.S. as children. Biden said he would do everything to help them but cautioned it wasn’t all up to him.
“While we will use the tools we have to allow dreamers to live and work in the only country they know as home, it is long past time for Congress to pass permanent protections for dreamers, including a pathway to citizenship,” Biden said in a statement.
The political backdrop to all these challenges is stark.
One in 3 U.S. adults believe an effort is underway to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains, according to an AP-NORC study. Republicans running for Congress are using midterm campaign ads to warn of a coming “invasion.” Some GOP leaders have taken to busing or flying border crossers to Democratic-led areas as a political play to raise awareness of what they claim is ongoing mayhem at the border.
Democrats, for their part, say they want to create a pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came here as children, and they want policies that reflect the U.S. role as a haven for those fleeing persecution. But they can’t agree on what that should look like.
And all the while, economists say the country needs more workers, not less, to meet its labor needs.
Biden, who inherited a hardened system oriented by Donald Trump toward keeping immigrants out, has undone many of Trump’s most contentious policies. He’s worked to speed up the handling of asylum cases and boost the number of refugees allowed into the U.S.
And despite record numbers of arrivals in recent months and all of those overheated campaign aids, border stations right now are largely free of the chaotic scenes that in past years sparked outrage -- migrants huddling under a bridge or small children packed behind fences.
Congress has repeatedly tried – and failed – to improve the nation’s tattered immigration system, chasing various proposals through the House and Senate only to see them collapse, often spectacularly.
Despite the latest court ruling on dreamers, it’s doubtful Congress will be able to pass any substantive legislation to protect a new generation of immigrants the way the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program provided a route to legal status a decade ago in the Obama administration.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed to the most recent bills that have been approved by the Democratic-run House, but languished in the Senate, where Republicans are able to filibuster to block bills in the evenly split chamber.
“House Democrats have twice passed the Dream and Promise Act: to finally offer Dreamers a permanent pathway to citizenship,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Senate Republicans must join us to immediately pass this urgent, necessary, House-passed legislation and send it straight to President Biden’s desk.”
With action in Congress unlikely, the president is going to have to find ways to innovate if he wants to improve on the status quo, advocates say.
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, acknowledged the “very real and undeniable challenges” Biden is facing, particularly as migrants arrive in record numbers. But he says the administration is falling short in meeting the moment.
“I have found this administration, particularly the White House, to be not creative nor open to creative approaches to provide relief,” he said, talking about migration issues that extend beyond the border.
Debate about the DACA program has dragged on so long that many of those children are now in their mid-30s with children of their own who are U.S. citizens. And the limbo continues after Wednesday's court ruling.
If the program is ultimately ended by the courts, Biden is weighing possible executive action to provide some safeguards to the dreamers, according to administration officials familiar with the plan who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity to discuss preparations.
The Trump administration claimed DACA was denying jobs to Americans by allowing migrants to supplant them. That idea has been disproven by economists and isn’t shared by a majority of Americans. Two-thirds feel the country’s diverse population makes the U.S. stronger, and far more favor than oppose a path to legal status for the DACA recipients, according to AP-NORC.
But the deep anxieties expressed by some Americans help to explain how the issue energizes those opposed to immigration. And the idea of disarray at the U.S-Mexico border also animates those on both sides of the debate.
Even as officials encounter more migrants than ever at the border, there's a lull right now in the type of shocking turmoil that has defined the past few years.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say changes to their processing system deserve at least part of the credit for increased efficiency and improved communication with Mexican officials on when and where migrants are coming.
“There is a lot of really thoughtful, detailed and careful work that’s being done to manage this flow,” said Commissioner Chris Magnus. He said migrants are vetted and screened rigorously, and careful steps are taken to make sure they are going into proper immigration pathways.
Critics, including some Democrats, say the administration is letting too many people into the country and should be either deporting or detaining more.
“If you don’t deport people, they will see the border as a speed bump,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Fox News. “We have to deport people. We have to deport people who aren’t supposed to be here.”
Overall, migrants have been expelled 1.8 million times since the beginning of the pandemic under an emergency health authority known as Title 42, which allowed the government to immediately deport asylum seekers as long as their countries were considered safe.
Although Biden in late March agreed to end the program, it has continued for now under a court order.
Sergio Gonzales, executive director of the Immigration Hub, a nonprofit that advocates for immigration reform, said whether the rule ultimately stands or falls, migrants will continue coming to the border because they’re living in impoverished, dangerous countries and making a calculus that staying is worse than the journey, ”even though there is a danger in that too.”
The U.S. is still trying to atone for the Trump-era family separations in which as many as 5,500 children were taken from their parents. So far, only about 600 families have been brought back together, in part because of considerable roadblocks thrown up under Trump.
Lee Gelernt, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who sued over the separations and is managing the reunifications, said that while the Biden administration has been “constructively working” to reunite families, he worries that the separations — international news when they happened — have been largely forgotten. “The truth is, there are still hundreds of little children who are not back with their parents.”
Associated Press Writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.