California Immigration U.S. Politics Writing

Why the “Border Crisis” is Stalling Immigration Reform

A conversation with political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan.

Most Americans think Joe Biden is doing a bad job handling intake of migrants at the U.S. southern border, recent polls show. Conservatives say there’s a “border crisis” that requires ramped up enforcement tactics to deter, surveil, detain and deport migrants. Progressives say the president isn’t upholding his promises to overturn his predecessor’s practices and shape a more humane and effective system, not just at the border but across the country.

To understand why Biden’s administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress are stalling when it comes to immigration reform, and the role that states like California are playing in pushing inclusion, Capital & Main spoke to political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan.

Ramakrishnan is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, where he founded the Center for Social Innovation, which generates policies around immigrant integration, civic engagement and economic mobility, among other opportunities for marginalized communities.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Capital & Main: The way the media and advocates talk about immigration influences public opinion and policy, according to your book Framing Immigrants. How is the current “border crisis” narrative shaping Americans’ thoughts and actions?

Karthick Ramakrishnan: There are competing frames and persuasion techniques when it comes to the border. That’s the tightrope that the Joe Biden administration has to walk.

On the conservative side, former President Donald Trump was effective in tapping into this notion that to have a country, you need to have a border. And he expanded the market share of people who believed that. 

Border crossing by asylum seekers and others has not literally been criminalized — it’s still a civil infraction. But there’s been a securitization of immigration policy and law. After 9/11, “border control” becomes “border security.” It takes on those Department of Homeland Security overtones. The border security frame remains powerful and resonant. 

Conservatives traditionally have also talked about amnesty to drive down support for immigration reform, even when it’s not applicable, as with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which is temporary relief, not amnesty.

On the flip side, for progressive advocates, opposing Trump’s child separation policy proved effective in increasing support for legalization or stopping deportations. Activists could use this very effective frame again to hold the Biden administration accountable.

At the time I wrote Framing Immigrants in 2016 with Chris Haynes and Jennifer Merolla, neither activists nor news media were deploying a frame we found to be persuasive: talking about immigrants as long standing members of our community.

The Biden administration and Congress recently decided to spend more money on immigration enforcement tactics like detention and surveillance. Meanwhile, immigration reform promised for decades continues to languish. Why?

Progressives have been willing to put up with almost anything, agreeing to harsh enforcement mechanisms and penalties as the price to pay for legalization. 

The George W. Bush administration started the practice. Barack Obama continued it, taking moderate Republicans at their word that if the president ramped up immigration enforcement in a significant way, then they would come on board to pass legalization. But it never materialized.

In 2006, an immigration reform bill passed the Senate but not the House. After Obama won reelection in 2013, it passed the Senate but again died in the House. So it’s always fallen apart, under both unified and divided government.

Even when Democrats controlled all three branches under Obama, they couldn’t pass the Dream Act in a lame duck session in 2010. That was very telling about the difficulty of legislative reform. 

Immigration conservatives acted in a coordinated fashion to engineer stalemate at the national level, and then to push conservative legislation at the state and local levels. It’s increased the opportunities for and the need for immigration reform, both restrictionist and progressive, to occur at the state level.

California and other progressive states are integrating undocumented immigrants by providing rights and access that go beyond national citizenship, as you wrote about in your book Citizenship Reimagined. How will states continue to shape immigration laws and enforcement during Biden’s time in office? 

In the states, progressives have shifted from always playing defense against restrictionist legislation to proactively expanding immigrant rights at the state level in the absence of a national reform. You’ve seen it in California and other states. 

But, we’ve seen in the past that when the Democrats win control of all three branches of the federal government, as they have now, philanthropists and advocates spend most of their time paying attention to D.C. with the hope of legislative reform. That unfortunately means a lot of attention goes away from state level reforms that need to occur before federal reforms to give legislation or executive actions resonance and legitimacy.

With all eyes on Biden, what is his administration capable of accomplishing on its own?

There are lots of things in the realm of possibilities. Federal law preempts state law when it comes to enforcement. The executive branch fully oversees things like DACA, temporary protected status and prioritization of arrests, detention and deportation, mainly through the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of Justice can drop litigation brought by the Trump administration that opposed actions of progressive states and sue states if they try to implement restrictionist policies. The Obama administration did so when faced with harsh laws like Arizona’s SB 1070.

Biden’s administration is also using rulemaking, a process that makes new regulations, to end Trump policies like the public charge rule, which had a chilling effect, keeping legal U.S. immigrants from using public services for fear of it counting against them when applying for naturalization or reentering the country. The administration has also reversed the Muslim ban.

As the United States recovers from the pandemic and economic recession, some states, such as California, are including undocumented immigrants in safety net programs. Is the federal government likely to follow suit?

It’s important for people to know that undocumented immigrants pay taxes. They should be eligible for tax credits or stimulus because they pay into the system. 

The Biden administration can’t directly expand federal benefits to undocumented immigrants, but Congress could do it through a simple majority using budget reconciliation rules. 

For example, when it comes to health care access under the Affordable Care Act, Congress could expand federally subsidized coverage to undocumented immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security — run by former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra — could also grant waivers to states that want to allow anyone, regardless of their legal status, to purchase insurance on state exchanges at an unsubsidized rate. We’ll likely see states like California push for that in the coming year.

How will including undocumented immigrants in recovery efforts affect the economy?  

Most undocumented immigrants live in mixed status households. If they were solo actors, then maybe we could exclude them without worrying about the economic and social effects. But they are embedded in families, communities, faith groups with U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. Excluding them from programs actually causes social harm.

This is not a jobless recovery, it’s actually a job shortage recovery, at least for the summer. We need more workers, immigrants included. It would seem smart policy to find ways to reintegrate immigrants back into the economy with measures like these. 

We know that immigrants are a major part of the entrepreneurial story of America, including undocumented immigrants. So we need to think about what a pro small business and pro entrepreneur policy looks like to harness the talent of immigrants in this country. When you talk about entrepreneurialism, it’s not just immigrants in high-tech industries, it’s also those that are starting small businesses like landscaping and construction companies.

It’s also important to pay special attention to farm workers. We saw during the pandemic that the people who were continuing to feed us — farm workers, retail and food service workers — were particularly adversely affected. As we think about economic and legal relief for these folks, we owe them not only our gratitude, but also our commitment to take care of them, because they took care of us.

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