If 11 million undocumented migrants already in America are granted amnesty, it may create an impression in the minds of millions of others that not only was it easy to enter the US illegally but illegal immigration was the preferred way, if not a guarantee, of becoming an American citizen.
President Joe Biden’s bold plan to grant amnesty, and subsequent citizenship, to 11 million undocumented immigrants is not only expected to burden the welfare system and strain resources, but create demographic imbalance, renew old conflicts, and spur fresh demands for immigration control. The Democrat from Delaware, elected 46th President of the United States in November last year, had promised during the campaign to dismantle President Donald Trump’s strict immigration policies, remove the travel ban, end deportation, and stop construction of the wall at the Mexican border, among other things. Such a pro-immigrant stance, inspired by the Democratic Party’s aim to fix America’s “fractured” immigration system and “unite” immigrant families, raised hopes among prospective immigrants that it would be easier to enter America if Biden was elected President. As for the 11 million illegal migrants already in America for nearly two decades, a Biden presidency was their last chance for citizenship. No Democrat in the White House in recent times was expected to do so much for illegal aliens. In fact, the last one before Biden, his one-time boss Barack Obama, had deported more illegal immigrants (nearly three million during his eight years in office) in recent history than any other.
Interestingly, Barack Obama, in his first campaign for President in 2008, had famously observed that it was more important for American children to learn Spanish than for Hispanics to learn English. But once elected President, he had gone back on his immigrant-friendly stance and insisted that immigrants must learn English and “stand in the line” waiting for their turn to be granted citizenship. In fact, Obama did not seem much in favour of bestowing citizenship status to illegal immigrants when he entered office, and was not sure of his powers in that regard even when he signed the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in June 2012. DACA granted a two-year amnesty from deportation for unaccompanied children who had entered America illegally, allowing them the time and the opportunity to become eligible for work permits; it was not meant to ensure citizenship status for them. To the horror and bewilderment of many Democrats, President Barack Obama was never enthusiastic about the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act—a proposed bipartisan legislation which never saw the light of the day—since it provided a pathway to permanent residency and subsequent citizenship to illegal minors. In fact, DACA was itself deferred action on illegal migrants on the part of Obama, coming as it did during the last year of his first term. Presently, there are around 3,500 unaccompanied minors—named “kids in cages” by immigrant sympathizers—in detention centres run by Border Patrol.
Taking apart President Trump’s immigration policy was perhaps second only to decrying his handling of the pandemic in order of importance in the Biden campaign. A liberal immigration policy was always the Democratic Party’s favourite plank. Trump was perceived as both anti-immigration and anti-immigrant, and the “party of immigrants” had tried tracing Trump’s attitude toward the issue in the alleged White supremacist ideology of the 45th President and his core support base. So Biden was expected by his party to undo the wrongs of two of his immediate predecessors: atone and compensate for Barack Obama’s refusal to help undocumented immigrants and reverse Trump’s radical measures to stop illegal immigration. Unfortunately, Biden has raised so much hope of a secure and prosperous future among those wanting to enter America illegally that more than 100,000 migrants had attempted to cross the Mexican-American border in February 2021, in less than a month after Biden took office. If 11 million undocumented migrants already in America are granted amnesty, it may create an impression in the minds of millions of others that not only was it easy to enter the United States illegally but illegal immigration was the preferred way, if not a guarantee, of becoming an American citizen.
Forty per cent of undocumented immigrants in the United States are visa violators. They had either overstayed their visa or unauthorizedly changed the purpose of their visa (started to work after coming to study and vice versa). Businesses had continued to hire these illegal aliens, allowing them to earn and give birth to 4 million children on American soil, complicating the situation further. This, apart from the unprecedented demographic shift in US history that might occur by extending them welfare, Social Security benefits, and health care as steps to the ultimate grant of citizenship. This may lead to resentment and resistance by common American citizens and anti-immigrant activists all over the country.
In the meantime, President Biden had entrusted Vice President Kamala Harris—herself born of Caribbean and Asian Indian immigrant parents—with the near impossible task of “strengthening democratic institutions” in the Central American republics of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico in order to deter its citizens from undertaking the “dangerous northward journey” to the United States. There are two problems here. First, none of these countries have any democratic tradition to speak of; it is futile to expect them to become strong democracies overnight. More importantly, for people in Central America, mostly illiterate and impoverished, the United States was always the “Shining City Upon a Hill”; it is difficult for them to suddenly dump that dream. If Joe Biden finds himself in a fix on the issue of illegal immigration, his party and he are the ones to blame: this is exactly what happens when a presidential candidate making unrealistic, risky, and dangerous promises is elected President.
Dr Saumyajit Ray is Assistant Professor in United States Studies at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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