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Republicans Push Inhumane Immigration Reform as Millions Wait

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. He is joined by, from left, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Sen John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. (Susan Walsh / AP)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week announced that Congress would take up the debate over immigration, resolve it, vote on a bill and pass it into law, all within a few days. Given that the Senate took up and rejected four proposals in the span of a few hours on Thursday, McConnell may have to rethink his timeline.

In what is clearly a coordinated attempt at forcing Democrats to cave on the GOP’s harsh and inhumane demands for immigration reform, President Donald Trump simultaneously began cracking his whip earlier this week, tweeting, “This will be our last chance, there will never be another opportunity.” But lawmakers from both parties have no one but themselves to blame for our messy immigration system.

At the heart of the latest debate over immigration is the fate of millions of young undocumented immigrants who call themselves “Dreamers” and whose protection under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program runs out March 5. But in tweeting “Wouldn’t it be great if we could finally, after so many years, solve the DACA puzzle,” Trump obscured the fact that it was his decision to end DACA. There would be no crisis over the Dreamers had Trump not created the artificial March 5 deadline in the first place, thus upending the lives of Dreamers, their families and their communities. He could just as easily have left DACA in place while Congress debated immigration as a whole and instead tackled the issue of older undocumented immigrants.

Conveniently, Trump has his own plan for immigration reform, which was presented as the only plan worth debating in Congress. In fact, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., labeled Trump’s proposal the “best and final offer” to Democrats right at the outset of the Senate deliberations. Such an approach makes a mockery of the word “debate.” But then again, Republicans have not been known to play fair in recent years. And, given that Democrats have lately been willing to bend over backward to hand their rivals victories, it is no surprise that the GOP has adopted a hard-line approach to these negotiations. The spending bill Congress passed less than a month ago would not have passed had 73 Democrats in the House and 36 in the Senate not betrayed Dreamers in voting for a bill with no provision for DACA or the DREAM Act.

McConnell wholeheartedly embraced Trump’s plan, effectively making the harsh proposal the de facto Republican offer. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, whose bill has been dismissed by immigrant advocates as “a copied and pasted version” of Trump’s plan, was one of four bills voted down by the Senate on Thursday afternoon, suggesting the gridlock over immigration could persist. In the meantime, Trump seems determined to stick to his project of splitting up families through the Department of Homeland Security, while advocating for a curb on legal immigration that could have similar effects.

Currently, naturalized citizens can sponsor their parents and siblings, but if the GOP and Trump have their way, these immigrants would be able to sponsor only their spouses and children. Trump and his colleagues like to call this type of family reunification “chain migration.” So much for the Republican Party’s talk of “family values.”

In addition to such draconian cuts to legal immigration, another one of Trump’s four “pillars” of immigration reform is to end the diversity lottery visa, a program that enables citizens of countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. to obtain legal residency. But Trump wants to replace this program with a “merit-based” system to attract skilled workers (but not their families) who could benefit the U.S. economy. For Trump, the term “skilled immigrant” seems to be code for white immigrants from countries like Norway, not immigrants from India or China. Taking him at his word, a number of Indian immigrants flew to Washington, D.C., recently to hold a rally demanding a true merit-based system and supporting the call to increase the number of skilled immigrants to the U.S. Indians in particular are frustrated by the cap on legal immigration from their country—a cap that Trump is extremely unlikely to want to lift, given that brown people seem unwelcome in Trump’s America. After all, his one-time ally and former chief strategist Steve Bannon’s favorite book, “The Camp of the Saints,” is a racist cautionary tale about invasive Indian masses overrunning Western civilization.

Trump’s other pillar of immigration reform is one favored by both major parties: strengthening border security. Already, the U.S. has dramatically ramped up immigration enforcement efforts in myriad ways that skirt ethical and legal boundaries. But Trump wants even more money to beef up border security—never mind that illegal border crossing rates into the U.S. are at a historical low.

During Barack Obama’s presidency the government emphasized immigration enforcement. In 2010, Obama signed a law to spend $600 billion on border security in the hopes that it would entice Republicans to budge on comprehensive reform to the U.S. immigration system. As late as 2013, Obama apparently made immigration enforcement “the federal government’s highest criminal law-enforcement priority,” as per a report by the Migration Policy Institute. But of course, the Republicans simply refused to budge on immigration with Obama in office, leading him to launch the DACA program and eventually reduce the number of deportations. Now, Trump and the GOP are offering a similar deal to what Obama ended up embracing: a brutal enforcement regime in exchange for a pathway to legalization for Dreamers.

Trump’s plan to offer a way for 1.8 million undocumented youth to obtain legal status sounds generous, particularly because only about 800,000 people registered under DACA. But it obscures the fact that many Dreamers’ family members also face deportation, such as Christian Olvera and his family and Blanca Morales and her family, or have parents who have already been deported. Many undocumented immigrants are simply ineligible for DACA or a program like it, and every day brings heartbreaking stories of parents being ripped away from their children.

Meanwhile, two federal judges so far have deemed Trump’s decision to end DACA illegal, and the legal challenge to his decision will continue to wind its way through the courts. It is possible that the Trump-imposed deadline of March 5, which he is desperately pushing Congress to meet, may not stand after all.

As the fast-moving train of immigration reform wends its way through Congress at the whim of the GOP and the president, millions of people in the U.S. are waiting with bated breath to find out what their future holds and if they will once again be betrayed by politicians.

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
Sonali Kolhatkar

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