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Commentary Immigration

Opinion: The politics of an(other) immigration amnesty

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By Jesus Ayala-Candia

It’s been over a month President Joe Biden first entered the hallowed halls of the White House, ushering a new era of reforms throughout America. His initial orders included a temporary halt on deportations, which a federal judge later suspended, arguing that the moratorium violated administrative procedure and immigration authorities continued the deportations to Central America. 

Jesus Ayala-Candia

This in itself is a prelude to the uphill battle that the Biden administration is expected to face with its immigration bill, The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. Overall, this is an ambitious bill that wants to “modernize” our immigration system. 

The act expands funding for immigration judges and legal counsel for migrant children and vulnerable populations, increases the cap on diversity visas, improves funding to promote English as a second language instruction and integration, exempts spouses & children of U.S. Citizens/lawful permanent residents from the “3-and-10 years” bar and provides an eight-year path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States.       

As per usual, both the ecstatic and fearmongering rhetoric about a potential amnesty is already buzzing the beehive of social media to the hallways inside the Capitol campus. 

However, if this act survives the congressional vetting, it wouldn’t be the first act of its kind to grant “legality” to other fellow human beings, but the second. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 did just that; and if Congress is not careful, they could set the stage for another “too good to be true” immigration bill.

Many of the undocumented migrants who resided in the United States in the 1980s came under the U.S-Mexico workforce Bracero Program or were made post-Bracero workers by their employers. Many settled well after Bracero had been terminated, others kept coming for seasonal labor as they established strong contacts with their employers and communities. 

Despite entry caps being placed for the Western Hemisphere since 1965, the booming post-war economy and continuous American overseas intervention increased the demand for migrant labor. The agriculture tycoons continuously hired undocumented immigrants. Disgruntled small-business farmers pressed by big corporation competitors turned their ire into nativistic rhetoric and demanded that something had to be done about the immigrant “problem.”

Congress responded by passing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. IRCA had two main points: It would grant a legalization amnesty to the 3.5 million undocumented immigrants who were already in the U.S., while sanctioning employers who hired undocumented immigrants to stop the demand; and it increased border enforcement by upgrading Border Patrol to the latest surveillance gear available in order to deter clandestine entry.

The amnesty and the family clause of the bill allowed migrants to legally request reunification of their immediate family members. Moreover, the sanctions were never really enforced because the employer wasn’t required to verify the documentation of their employees and could only be sanctioned if authorities proved that the employer “willingly” knew of their employees unauthorized status. 

As employers kept their illicit practice, they permitted the demand for cheap labor to thrive. If this wasn’t enough, migration scholars argue that as the militarization of the border rose in a frenzy to create a harsher impasse, the incoming undocumented migrant population got trapped inside the United States as more and more reduced their crossing patterns to avoid being spotted by Customs and Border Protection.

To summarize, IRCA was a failure that helped set the stage for the present legislative circumstances.

Most recent federal and state immigration bills have focused on criminalizing migrants and increasing the scope of CBP, but nothing to actually address the causes of migration. 

Biden’s Citizenship Act seeks to visit this latter point. As fellow sociologist Douglas Massey posits, the current migrant influx is directly derived from the 1970s-80s American intervention in Central America, which left a topsy turvydom in the region that has forced many to flee. 

To address this, the act seeks to invest a “$4 billion four-year inter-agency plan” increasing assistance to sending countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to reduce the “push” factors of migration such as governmental corruption, cartel violence, and poverty.

 The Citizenship Act is indeed an outlier from its previous legislative cousins, because it recognizes that migration is both an external and internal process. Although it does include a provision to increase border security in terms of deterring drugs, guns, and human traffic, the act’s main purpose is to address a humanitarian issue that has been falsely framed as a criminal “crisis.”

Yet, the nativist appeal that remains within the mouthpieces of the GOP or the remaining Trump loyalists in government  is precisely the reason I remain wary  of the survival of this bill as is. Enacting such a herculean reform at this time is equally needed, but one can’t deny it is a tall order.

The word of warning Congress needs to hear is to remember that history doesn’t tend to repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. 

As some critics have pointed out, this bill could be “12 years too late,” when frankly it is over a century too late. The fate of this immigration reform will speak volumes about the United States as a nation — will we confront our own xenophobic insecurities and accept the responsibility of living up to our creed as a nation of immigrants?

Jesus Ayala-Candia is an El Paso native and is a graduate student at Texas Tech University. His research interests include immigration studies, Latinx sociology, sociolegal interactions and social justice issues. These views are his own and do not speak on behalf of those institutions.

Cover image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay

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