Like a gravitational field, there’s a narrative that exerts a powerful pull on U.S. immigration policy. It features hordes of migrants besieging our southern border, bringing crime, and lured — as the latest version goes — by erratic border enforcement, and a lenient Biden administration.
It’s a narrative as powerful as it is untrue, and it needs to be countered: Not just for the sake of immigrants, but for the nation as a whole.
On Nov. 19, when U.S. House Democrats passed a $2.2 trillion social safety net and climate bill, they left out a signature Biden administration commitment: A path to citizenship for the 10.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Instead, they included in the budget bill a provision for a temporary status called “parole” — a five-year protection from deportation along with eligibility for work permits.
If the provision is passed in the U.S. Senate, it will also give immigrants an opportunity to renew that protected status for another five years.
But even that development is iffy. Senate negotiations on the budget bill — particularly on immigration — may be more grueling than in the House.
While some immigration advocates hail parole as a step forward, others decry it as a betrayal: An endorsement of a second-class status for millions of individuals, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, who have contributed to their communities and worked in essential fields — like agriculture, construction and health care — for many years.
Clearly, a narrative of menacing migrants held sway, as House Democrats in swing districts got nervous about being associated with “expansive immigration reform.”
How can such a narrative hold so much power, particularly when opinion surveys show that Americans strongly support a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, and millions of essential workers? One reason is that the story serves the interests of influential politicians, commentators, think tanks, and private detention companies — all of whom profit from it in one respect or another.
When prominent individuals and organizations repeat the story often enough, and loudly enough, its influence grows exponentially.
Early in November, 39 Republican congressional members representing border state districts wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer urging them not to incorporate any immigration provisions — including parole — into the social safety net and climate bill. Citing the large numbers of border encounters recorded this year by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, they sought to paint the migrants’ presence in ominous terms, associating the migrants with criminality, and arguing that “we cannot afford to create new incentives to illegal migration in the midst of a crisis.”
In painting such a picture, the 39 Republicans ignored numerous studies showing conclusively that immigrants — including unauthorized immigrants and immigrant youth — have lower crime rates than native-born citizens. These studies make clear that harsh anti-immigration policies — including detention and expulsion — have little value in fighting crime.
The 39 also ignore the powerful “push” factors that cause people to leave their homes in search of safety, freedom and livelihood. Their negative narrative says nothing about the Haitians who fled their country after a 2010 earthquake that left 217,000 people dead, and 1.5 million homeless. Nor about the political instability and violence that have racked the country after its president was assassinated this year.
Nor do they reference the Hondurans left devastated and desperate by the back-to-back hurricanes — Eta and Iota — last year, as well as by food insecurity, corruption, and extortion by gangs. Nor is there any mention of people from other countries where war, corruption, destitution, and climate-related drought and flooding have made life untenable.
It’s not in the interest of these 39 congressional representatives and their allies in the media and other institutions to recognize another immigration story entirely: a narrative rooted in law, a narrative that sees immigrants as essential to revitalizing entire regions, and to maintaining a robust economy as U.S. population growth declines.
It is in the nation’s interest to lift up that other story, for it is in this narrative that the seeds of another kind of nation are found: A country less fearful, more inclusive, more democratic, and more encouraging of human possibility and reinvention.
The author is an emeritus professor of English and nonviolence studies at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona