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J. Kevin ApplebyJune 25, 2024
Briana, a 1-year-old migrant girl from Peru, is carried by her father, Jordan, as they search for an entry point into the United States past a razor wire-laden fence along the bank of the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, March 26, 2024. (OSV News photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)

As President Biden and former President Trump prepare for their first presidential debate on June 27, both candidates have been attempting to show how strict they can be on border control. National polls have shown that immigration has risen this year as a major concern for Americans, mostly in reaction to the large numbers of asylum seekers who have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border over the past two years.

Republicans, led by Mr. Trump, have been adept at fanning the flames of fear, attacking President Biden for the increased number of arrivals. In response, Mr. Biden has attempted to burnish his immigration enforcement credentials by advocating for a restrictive border bill and issuing a presidential proclamation restricting asylum applications at the U.S.-Mexico border. But in what may be an effort to look more balanced in his approach, Mr. Biden has also launched several policies easing the way for recent immigrants to work here legally, including a recent pro-family directive that gives the undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens legal status and work authorization.

So far, the debate over the border has generated more heat than light on the larger issue of immigration.

Although immigration has risen as a concern for Americans, a deeper analysis of polling shows that voters still consider the economy to be a higher priority. And it can be argued that concerns about immigration are, in fact, a symptom of insecurities about the economy—particularly the cost of living and inflation, which remain too high for many U.S. families. Misleading reports and pictures from the border by certain media outlets—often labeled as depicting an “invasion” of immigrants—seem designed to capitalize on the economic fears of Americans, some of whom see immigrants as a threat to their jobs, economic well-being and quality of life.

What some American voters may not fully grasp, however, is that the U.S. economy needs immigrant labor for growth and to create jobs for U.S. citizens.

In fact, economists believe that immigration has contributed to post-pandemic job growth in the United States, and because immigrants are generally paid less than U.S. citizens, this job growth is not driving up prices. Economists also point out that, because of low birth rates and an aging population, many U.S. industries will continue to need immigrant workers in the decades ahead. Research has also found that low-skilled immigrants—the majority of arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border—complement the U.S. labor force rather than compete against U.S.-born workers. More specifically, they fill jobs in industries such as agriculture and construction that most Americans do not want.

To his credit, President Biden has recognized the need for immigrant labor. As mentioned above, he has signed a directive that gives undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens legal status and work authorization. He has also approved a program allowing certain immigrants from politically unstable Latin American and Caribbean countries to immigrate legally to, and work in, the United States—an initiative that immediately led to a 95 percent drop in unauthorized migration from those countries. Such legal avenues can help establish order at the border, as immigrants avail themselves of safe entry rather than a dangerous and costly journey from their home countries.

For his part, Mr. Trump seems determined to peddle dehumanizing, anti-immigrant language and policies to stoke a latent cultural fear based on the race and ethnicity of certain immigrants, calling them “animals,” claiming that they are “poisoning the blood of our country,” and suggesting that “nasty, mean” migrants could be placed in leagues to fight U.S. citizens for sport.

He has promised to deport every undocumented immigrant from the country, which will cost billions, hurt the economy and terrorize immigrant families, including legal residents and U.S. citizens. But perhaps in recognition of the labor needs in more highly skilled industries, Mr. Trump also recently suggested that all migrants who graduate from college be “automatically” given green cards and permission to work in the United States —a proposal that his campaign walked back only a few days later, in response to criticism from conservative groups.

What is ultimately needed—and what is seldom discussed on the campaign trail—is the reform of a U.S. immigration system that is severely outdated and ill-equipped for our modern economy. Sadly, what will likely not be talked about in any detail during the first presidential debate is the dire need for our elected officials, particularly Congress, to create more legal avenues for immigrant workers to fill crucial jobs. A broader reform also would include changes to the asylum system and longer-term policy solutions to alleviate the root causes of migration.

Another fact that may be conveniently ignored during the debate is that for the past 35 years the United States has deployed enforcement-only policies to halt irregular migration, costing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, with little to show for it other than human suffering and migrant deaths. The forces that drive people to our border—poverty, conflict and persecution—can be stronger than the enforcement policies used to deter them.

Despite the best efforts of the Catholic Church and others to promote immigration reform as the proper response to a broken system, Congress has not seriously considered immigration reform in 10 years, and it has not enacted major reforms to the system since 1990. As a result, immigrants continue to be scapegoated by some for our nation’s social and economic ills, when, in reality, they are part of the solution.

Until reform is achieved, immigration will remain a central topic in our political discourse, as Americans will likely witness in the first presidential debate of 2024. This time, hopefully, the candidates will cast more light than heat on the subject.

[Read next: “Immigration and declining fertility are shaping elections in Europe and the U.S.”]

[Also read: “Good news for immigration advocates: The Senate bill is dead. Bad news: There’s nothing else.”]

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