The first night of the second round of debates of Democratic presidential candidates had a remarkable turn: several of the centrist candidates who faced Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders changed their tune regarding undocumented immigrants.
They warned that supporting immigrants too much could prove a steep political cost at the polls; Montana Governor Steve Bullock warned that decriminalizing the border crossing, as Julián Castro proposes, would be tantamount to "FedEx the election to Donald Trump".
"We've got a hundred thousand people showing up at the border right now. If we decriminalize their entry, if we give health care to everyone, they'll just multiply", he said, adding "Don't take my word for it. That was President Obama's homeland security secretary who said that."
According to a survey conducted in January by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans said immigrants strengthen the country, while 28 percent said that immigrants are a burden.
Another interesting detail of the survey is that Americans who believe that the number of legal immigrants should rise has risen to 32 percent, a growth of points since 2001, while those who thought that the number of legal migrants should be reduced, fell to 24 percent. Thirty-eight percent of those polled, think that the numbers should stay as they are.
Sixty-nine percent said they feel sympathy for undocumented immigrants in the US. Between the political parties, the split is more dramatic: 86 percent of Democrats said they sympathize with undocumented immigrants, whereas among Republicans the number is 48 percent.
It is ironic that growth in acceptance probably has to do with Donald Trump's onslaught against immigrants. The heartbreaking scenes of children separated from their families and imprisoned in detention centers which do not meet the minimum standards of habitability, or of men crammed into cells where they do not have space to sit, has put the plight of the undocumented at the center stage of the debate.
In regards to comprehensive immigration reform, something that in the Trump era seems impossible to achieve, but which could change in 2020, only 27 percent of Americans said they felt that granting legal status to undocumented immigrants was like rewarding them for doing something wrong. 67 percent said they didn't see it that way. This is a striking change and suggests that voters are ready for a reform that could normalize the lives of millions of people.
This electoral cycle, Latinos will prove a huge influence on who will be the Democratic nominee for the presidency. They could even tip the scales to define the winner of the presidential race in states like Texas and Arizona.
LPO spoke with Jennifer Lee Koh, an immigration specialist and law professor at Western State University, about what comprehensive immigration reform should look like and how viable it will be in the coming years.
According to Lee Koh, it is not surprising that for the Latino population the immigration issue is not the main priority "because each community has such different immigration histories". That is, the communities of Cuban-Americans and Mexican-Americans have diametrically opposite experiences with immigration to the U.S.
Lee Koh also said it is common "when a community finds itself under attack, for some members of that community to say ?I'm not like this other person in my community, I'm different, don't attack me.'" This could explain why not all Latinos are in favor of protecting new immigrants from Latin America.
She agreed that surveys nationwide "have shown that most Americans support immigration reform, and I would expect the reaction to be similar across various communities".
However, as to what this reform should contain, Lee Koh clarified that "immigration is not necessarily about one community. It changes from one community to the other. This has to do with values. I don't know how each community would respond on its own account".
For President Trump, immigration reform means closing the so-called "legal loopholes" that allowed asylum seekers to remain in the US indefinitely; also to discontinue the so-called "chain migration"; reduce the number of legal immigrants; and tighten the requirements to apply for asylum.
Lee Koh explained that, for a specialist in immigration issues, that kind of reform would look different. "When we talk about comprehensive immigration reform the main component is to provide some way, some passway, so that people who are here without immigration status, so that they can apply and have a way to fix their status", she said.
However, according to her, the challenge is that "recently, whenever the conversation about immigration reform has come up, there have been calls to also do things like building a wall or spend more money on border security. It's not clear why that's necessary, but that has become part of the political negotiation".
Lee Koh and other analysts point out that it is urgent to increase the number of work visas to better match the demands of the US economy, "and not create this need for an undocumented population and more militarization".
"I don't see the need to create more jails and to allocate more border patrol officers", she added. If you could simply increase the number of visas, the government can still have a way of regulating who comes into the country."
She explained that the allotment of visas issued each year was arranged by Congress several years ago, thus, they are not updated according to today's needs. "There's no need for us to be so strict with the actual numbers. These numbers need to change".
In line with what Castro, Sanders, and Warren propose, the immigration lawyer said "some of the rules that make it very difficult to leave and come back also need to change". The consequence of this type of regulation is that it increases the number of people living in the US without permission. "In some way, we have made the penalty for coming in so harsh that people feel like they can't even leave if they want to because penalties are so strong".
It is remarkable that Trump's rhetoric and his new border security guidelines "have created an atmosphere where people have become very hostile to immigrants, but it has also caused people to question our immigration system".
Lee Koh did not rule out that society's pressure and demands serve to have a "more reasonable and sensitive" immigration system. Survey numbers seem to support this idea.
"Nonetheless, this is hard to know", she pointed out ", since, for the past ten years, efforts at reform have been futile. Results lie with how voters feel, what people are willing to fight for, and make phone calls for, and vote for. So, we shall see".
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