Opinion: Biden’s very smart move on immigration

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.

This week, the Biden administration announced a common-sense immigration measure that will help to strengthen and stabilize American families: An executive action that allows undocumented spouses of US citizens who have been living in the country for more than a decade to stay in the US as they apply for permanent residency.

Jill Filipovic. - Courtesy Jill Filipovic
Jill Filipovic. - Courtesy Jill Filipovic

Previously, undocumented spouses and kids had to leave the US and then apply for residency, which takes a parent out of a home, out of a job, out of a community, and out of an entire family system.

These new protections would also extend to the children of the qualifying undocumented immigrants, who are stepchildren of US citizens.

By any definition, this policy is pro-family and pro-child. And it doesn’t increase immigration, as it only applies to people who are already in the country and have been for many years — roughly 500,000 adults and some 50,000 children, all of whom are currently living in limbo.

It’s basic and humane: Imagine the stress of knowing your spouse of many years, and perhaps the parent of your child, could be picked up and deported in an instant — along, even, with your stepchild.

And so of course many “pro-family” Republicans are criticizing the action, even after they torpedoed a restrictive and bipartisan immigration bill that offered them a slew of concessions earlier this year.

The Biden administration is in a tough spot on immigration, in a tough election year. President Joe Biden has cracked down hard on immigration, including issuing an executive order that largely blocked the ability of migrants at the southern border to claim asylum.

Thousands of people have been arrested crossing over from Mexico to the US every day; in December of last year, Border Patrol made a record nearly 250,000 arrests. US cities, many of them previously claiming to be progressive and welcoming to newcomers but also suffering acute housing shortages, homelessness crises and infrastructure challenges, have been straining to support a deluge of people who need food, housing and other support.

Donald Trump has made immigration a compelling campaign issue. And with Republicans cynically blocking Biden’s previous efforts to constrain immigration, the president has few options when it comes to across-the-aisle negotiations. He is also the head of a party with diverse views on immigration, with many Democrats wanting tighter controls, and many others strongly opposing efforts to curtail asylum or turn desperate people away.

Polls show that voters, including a plurality of Democrats, support Biden’s tougher border policies. But the administration is walking a fine line, especially after billing itself as a more humane alternative to Trump, who notoriously tried to ban immigrants from several majority-Muslim countries, separated migrant children from their families and imposed other draconian restrictions on immigration.

This latest action, which keeps families together without touching border policies, is an excellent step forward. It is absurd that people married to US citizens or the children of them have to leave their homes, families and jobs if they want to obtain legal status in the United States.

Over and over again, politicians and activists on both sides of the political aisle have emphasized the importance of stable families for children and communities; the value of a two-parent household has been a Republican talking point for decades.

An immigration policy that makes people choose between legal status and an intact family is an immigration policy that helps no one. It’s hard to see how Biden’s new move would encourage immigration given that it doesn’t apply to new arrivals, but very easy to see how the absence of this change would keep families in a state of unnecessary limbo and anxiety.

The Republican criticisms of the bill are frankly hollow. “They are increasing incentive for people to come here illegally,” Republican Whip John Thune said. “I am sure they’ll be challenged.” The conservative group America First Legal has indeed said they will challenge the new measures.

And other Republicans, including Sen. Thom Tillis, argue that the administration should have pushed instead for a bipartisan bill.

But they already did support a bipartisan immigration bill, and Republicans tanked it for purely political reasons.

Pleas for partisanship and common-sense legislation seem almost quaint in our era of hyper-polarization. But the reality is that Americans desperately need elected officials who will work in their best interests, not simply to get their party more seats in Congress or their favored presidential candidate in the White House.

There are real, substantive policy debates over immigration, and real, substantive disagreements about how many immigrants the US should welcome, how we should regulate immigration flows, and what to do about the millions of undocumented people who are already here. These are worthy of debate.

But when leaders propose solutions that meet just about every criteria for good policy — here, keeping families together while not fueling migration increases — politicians should give credit where credit is due. Or, if that’s too difficult, at least stay silent and get to work on their own policies and projects.

Many Republicans say they want mass deportations. But the reality will inevitably get more complicated when the people being deported are beloved and long-standing members of their communities, married to American spouses and potentially parenting American children.

Biden’s plan to create an easier pathway for those entitled to permanent residency to secure it without breaking up their families is about as sane and conventional as it gets. Republicans and Democrats alike should get behind it.

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