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Border bumble: Congress gives up on immigration

Last week, the White House unveiled new rules to more quickly reach asylum denials for people considered national security and public safety threats, something of a prelude for more expansive expected restrictions.

Ultimately, this policy will have limited impact, and it’s sure not to satisfy anyone, neither the hawks calling on President Biden to more fully adopt his predecessor’s extreme stance, nor the advocates who have been disappointed by the president’s refusal to fully step back from the Trump-era dynamics. Whatever the outcome, it should not be a system run through the whims of the current executive. Congress, having tried and failed to pass a limited border bill earlier this year, seems content to abdicate this responsibility, only to be pulled out as an electoral cudgel, never to be fixed.

Meanwhile we’re squandering time and talent, as businesses clamor for labor and innovation and migrants find their way to costly city shelters as opposed to being integrated into the economy and reversing population declines in towns and cities across the country. The can gets kicked down further, and everyone loses.

The most damaging thing is the persistent myth that this has to be all or nothing. Either we have some sort of immoral and illegal absolute border closure, abandoning our principles and obligations to the people so aptly described by the Statue of Liberty, or we have no process, no restrictions, no standards. This belief is both wrong and incredibly persistent, poisoning the dialogue and standing in the way of meaningful reform, which all parties claim to want.

We do not have to remake the wheel. The bipartisan border deal that collapsed in Congress in February had had a lot not to like, including the reinstatement of a version of the always misguided Title 42 restriction. However, there were worthwhile elements that should be resuscitated, notably an effort to take many new asylum claims out of the slow and confrontational setting of the immigration courts and place them in an internal agency process, where trained government personnel would evaluate the applications like they already do for countless other immigration matters.

Applicants would either quickly get approvals or quickly get denials, which could then be appealed to another panel of experts. Faster resolutions help everyone: those who qualify for protections can receive them expeditiously, giving them runway to begin their new lines in the United States without the unstable limbo of drawn-out removal proceedings. Those who do not aren’t left to start building lives here only to, in a year or two, have the rug pulled out from under them.

There are real questions to be hammered out around how to speed things up without infringing on due process, and there are structural obstacles like a widespread shortage of attorneys who can take on these often complicated cases. These considerations must be taken into account in order for us to avoid the worst-case scenario of sending people back to danger.

But these are not insurmountable obstacles, certainly not for a nation with the resources, breadth and ingenuity of the United States — the very qualities that many immigrants are both seeking and have contributed to. In all but giving up, Congress shows they have less grit than the immigrants they’re failing.


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