Roberts column: A strength, not a weakness

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 4, 2020

By Steven V. Roberts

A great many issues are competing for President-elect Biden’s attention, and the combination of a surging pandemic and a struggling economy must be at the top of his priority list. But right behind those pressing problems should be an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

Of all the mean-spirited and wrongheaded policies pursued by the Trump administration, the deliberate destruction of America’s traditional role as a haven for immigrants has been one of the worst. It cannot be said loudly or often enough: Trump is flat-out wrong. His policy is based on fiction, not fact; delusion, not data.

Immigrants have always been an enormous blessing for this country, a major source of economic energy and cultural vitality, and today they are more valuable than ever.

Industrialized countries are facing two huge demographic threats: aging seniors living longer, and younger families bearing fewer children. These twin trends are crippling countries like Japan and Italy, which can no longer afford their expensive social welfare systems. Here in the U.S., we are bolstered by youthful, hardworking, tax-paying immigrants helping to alleviate that budget shortfall.

Fortunately, as Biden prepares to take office, the country is ready for a sharp shift away from Trumpist restrictions. A new Gallup survey finds that by a stunning margin of 77% to 19%, Americans believe that immigration “is a good thing for America.” Also, 34% favor increased immigration, while only 28% favor decreased levels. That marks the first time since Gallup started asking the question in 1965 that higher quotas were more popular than lower ones.

As a result, the Biden administration has a mandate for a number of rapid changes that can be made without legislation:

• Extending DACA, the Obama-era program that protected about 650,000 “Dreamers” — undocumented young adults who were brought here as children. Trump tried and failed to cripple this initiative, and Biden should not only reinforce the program, but loosen its restrictions and open it to new applicants.

• Preserving Temporary Protected Status for about 300,000 immigrants from six countries ravaged by natural disasters and civil unrest. Again, Trump tried relentlessly to end the program, and a federal court agreed in September that he could do so. The immigrants from these countries — Nepal, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti and Sudan — provide a major source of economic stability back home by sending regular remittances to relatives still there. Biden should consider adding Venezuelans fleeing that country’s political turmoil to the list.

• Trump has been particularly vicious toward refugees, who apply for resettlement from outside the country through a United Nations agency. He’s slashed the annual quota that reached 125,000 under Obama to a mere 15,000 in the current fiscal year. Until Trump’s election, the U.S. accepted more refugees every year than the rest of the world combined. Last year, it wasn’t even close to the most welcoming country: Even Canada, with barely one-tenth as many people as America, received more newcomers. Biden says he will restore Obama’s annual quota.

• Asylum seekers, who apply for legal status once they reach America, present another huge issue. Trump essentially ended asylum on the Mexican border by “subjecting migrants to as much misery as possible,” as The Washington Post reported. Biden needs to restore humanity and decency to the asylum process, while being careful not to unleash a vast wave of migrants from Central America who cannot be easily or quickly processed.

• Another virulent Trump policy was to change Obama-era rules that focused deportation efforts on known criminals. Biden should restore Obama’s emphasis on lawbreakers while giving law-abiding families a certain level of security.

• Trump used the pandemic as an excuse to suspend a valuable program that allowed foreigners with high-tech skills to work for American companies. The head of one industry group called the move a “full-frontal attack on American innovation.” Biden should reverse it immediately.

A long-range goal should be to enact legislation that provides a route to citizenship for 11 million undocumented foreigners, many of whom have American children and long histories of living and working here. That will be very difficult, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate after the special elections in Georgia next month.

But remember what Obama said in his inaugural address 12 years ago: “We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth … We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”

That essential truth, and heartfelt belief, should guide the new Biden administration, as well.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at