Editor’s Note: Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat who represents Washington’s 7th congressional district in the US House of Representatives, came to the US at 16 alone and went on to start an immigrant rights organization in Washington state. Deepak Bhargava is a distinguished lecturer at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies and a longtime organizer and immigrant rights movement leader. They are contributors to “Immigration Matters: Movements, Visions and Strategies for a Progressive Future.” The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
Immigrants are a bedrock of our country. For years, the US has benefited in immeasurable ways from the energy, the ingenuity and the passion that immigrants bring to our country. We’ve seen these contributions firsthand as immigrants ourselves.
We’ve also organized for immigrant rights for over two decades. We’ve protested, lobbied, marched and even gotten arrested to advance the immigrant cause. We do this work because we understand that in a country where, according to data compiled by the American Immigration Council, one in every seven US residents is an immigrant, and one in every eight is a native-born US citizen with at least one immigrant parent, immigrants are an undeniable part of who we are. They deserve dignity, opportunity and respect.
We know from experience that America succeeds more by embracing immigrants, and as Democrats, we can affirm that by embracing immigrants instead of vilifying them. It’s especially crucial to remember that now, when Republicans, and even some Democrats, wrongly criticize the Biden administration’s overdue action to end Title 42, a xenophobic policy masquerading as a public health measure that has blocked people from seeking asylum in the United States since March 2020.
Since its implementation, Title 42 has been criticized by leading epidemiologists and public health experts, who have pointed out that the order only applies to asylum-seekers coming from the southern border, not permanent residents, US citizens or tourists coming back into the country at the same time. Public health experts have many times said that there is no public health rationale for an asylum ban.
Last month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the order would be terminated on May 23. But a federal judge in Louisiana temporarily blocked the end of Title 42 and heard arguments last Friday, saying he would issue a ruling before May 23. Meanwhile, a number of US senators have also introduced a new bill to prevent the Biden administration from lifting the policy. Although we’ve seen polling that suggests many Americans support the extension of Title 42, we believe it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the policy actually does than a support of the policy itself.
To understand today’s polarized debate, we must rewind the tape to review the damage done by the previous administration. Former President Donald Trump may have targeted undocumented immigrants in his public statements, but his administration often focused on closing pathways for legal migration. His administration reduced the number of refugees allowed to enter the US to a trickle and made it harder for people to get visas and become US citizens.
But Trump didn’t stop there – he complicated asylum-seeking efforts too. Asylum must be understood as a critical part of the legal immigration system in America. Under both domestic and international law, people fearing persecution because of their membership in a marginalized group have a right to seek protection and residence in the United States. Those who are coming to the southern border at designated checkpoints are exercising that right – and should be afforded fair treatment and have their cases heard.
Trump used Title 42 to block that process on the grounds that people seeking asylum might pose a public health threat due to Covid-19. It was wrong when it was first implemented, and it is wrong now. Public health experts agreed that the policy failed to further public health and that the CDC failed to consider alternative measures that would protect public health without circumventing our legal obligation to asylum-seekers.
Anticipating the end of Title 42, the Department of Homeland Security released a memo about surging resources at the border to ensure that people can seek asylum as they are entitled to do by law. Until Congress agrees to tackle a comprehensive overhaul of our broken and backlogged immigration system, this plan will implement a more humane approach to helping people who flee violence, famine and persecution to come to the United States.
Under this plan, DHS will increase resources to support border operations, including transportation, medical support and operational facilities. They will also bolster the capacity of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to receive migrants after they’ve been processed. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas laid out DHS’s plan to handle the expected influx of refugees at the border in a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing – and we are eager for people to hear more about this plan.
Though we wish the administration had acted sooner, we commend President Joe Biden for lifting Title 42 more than two years after the policy was first implemented. It’s not surprising that Biden has been attacked by Republicans for doing so – and that many Republican-led states have sought to fight this in court. But we are disturbed to see that some Democrats have also opposed the move to lift Title 42. This is wrong on moral and humanitarian grounds.
Immigration continues to be an issue that dominates headlines. And we must not hesitate to communicate with voters our vision for how we can fix our broken immigration system with compassionate, people-centered solutions.
After four years of the Trump administration, the so-called Muslim ban and harsh policies that saw thousands of kids separated from their families at the border, Americans are choosing to open their arms and hearts instead. According to Gallup, as of July of 2021, 75% of Americans thought immigration was a good thing for our country. And a majority supported creating more pathways to citizenship for DACA recipients and immigrants with temporary status in the US.
If the overwhelmingly positive reception for Ukrainian refugees and Afghan refugees is indicative of US sentiment, in many cases Americans are willing to not only accept greater levels of immigration, but also to sponsor refugees and immigrants and welcome them into their communities and their homes.
Even as the rhetoric around immigrants and immigration gets more divisive, we must remember that there are real people behind this issue. We cannot take our compassion and our empathy out of the process. We cannot allow hatred and fear of political retaliation to prevent us from doing the right thing. Immigration policy is not just about immigrants – it defines our character and identity as a multiracial, inclusive democracy.
It is clear now more than ever that Democrats need to stop running away from immigration at the slightest hint of pressure. Instead, we must use this moment to lean in and offer an alternative to Republican xenophobia by unapologetically embracing our vibrant immigrant communities. By taking a stand, we will stop many of today’s prominent Republicans from using immigrants as political footballs and show the community that rallied behind us that we proudly support them.
We are now at a defining crossroad in our country when it comes to immigration, and Democrats have a unique opportunity to finally deliver on immigration reform. The stakes couldn’t be higher, or more important. Standing behind immigrants, their families and their friends isn’t just the right and moral thing to do – it is at the very foundation of who we are as a country.