During the Trump administration, we saw over 1,064 policies, actions and pieces of legislation that were enacted or suggested, according to the “Trump Tracker” Immigration Policy Tracking Project. Many of these policies were harmful and resulted in the separation of families and missing children, a rise in COVID-19-related deaths in detention centers, and an almost 20,000 decrease in international students in the country, to name a few impacts.
Every day, for four years, felt like the most insurmountable and awful experience. But a restrictive immigration policy is not new. As scholars have noted, policies such as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 created apparatuses that resulted in family separation and the criminalization of immigrants.
Most recently, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has deported a number of people to Haiti even after the stay to deportation. We know that the U.S. has exacerbated COVID in other countries by deporting people.
This is unacceptable. It is imperative that Congress pass an immigration reform bill that speaks to the progress we can make in America.
The Biden administration’s proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 is a good start. In particular, the act would create a new status of “Lawful Prospective Immigrant” status allowing folks the ability to gain permanent residency through a few avenues and expanding many types of visas for people to visit, work, and live in the United States.
There are many reasons why a robust and progressive immigration policy is important. One could make the economic argument that immigrants get the job done. Immigrants are employees in important industries that support the infrastructure of this country and have been essential during the COVID-19 pandemic — farmworkers, meatpacking plants, health care workers, and childcare, to name a few.
One could make the human-rights claim that the U.S. has perpetuated and backed the destabilization of many nations, from the destabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan to backing dictators and enforcing sanctions in Central and South America. As a nation, we are responsible for the harm that our international policy escalates.
But I will make a simple case: Humans move. If you have ever moved across the country for a job, or gone off to college, or left your house to buy a new one, you’ve engaged in migration. The belief that people are somehow different for moving across arbitrary borders is a phantasm that I don’t know how we’ve managed to perpetuate.
I initially moved from Liberia to North Carolina as a child as a result of a civil conflict. Our next move to Massachusetts was because we wanted to be closer to family. My spouse and I have moved numerous times across the U.S., from college in Rochester and Boston, for work in Chicago, and later to be close to family and my continued education in Denver. Migration is a part of the human condition; if you’re a millennial, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
However, if you are inclined to disagree, know that a new immigration policy that gives people genuine pathways to residency and citizenship would increase the gross domestic product (as it did in the 1980s after amnesty). It would allow an entire generation of people to live fully realized lives in the country they have lived in all their lives. Stopping deportations would improve public health globally.
Most importantly, for the families like mine that had been separated for decades due to the negative impacts of restrictive and regressive immigration policy, reform would reunite people.
COVID-19 gave many people a glimpse into the reality of what many immigrants face — the loss of celebrating milestones both big and small with their loved ones — the birth of children, the death of relatives, graduations, and growth spurts. An amnesty policy of this magnitude would give people something you cannot quantify, quality time with the people you love.
As someone who had to wait 15 years to be reunited with my siblings, the notion that we could be together “someday” was a hope we held onto dearly. Immigration is not a niche issue that only impacts a small population. For many, it is a part of their history and for some, it is a part of our present lived experience.
There are many ways to make America a place of welcome. We can start by supporting a policy that remediates harm, and creates a pathway for a more and a better country for all of us.
Annie Zean Dunbar is a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver.
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