Is Biden Letting Republicans Set the Terms of the Immigration Debate?

“We have given into the Republican narrative in such a way that we’re beginning to sound like them”: A roundtable discussion with Rep. Delia Ramirez, Heba Gowayed, Victor Narro and Carlos Rojas Rodriguez

Natascha Elena Uhlmann

Illustration by Rob Dobi

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Going into the 2024 election, the GOP’s position on migration is abundantly clear. In June 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stood at a presidential campaign podium emblazoned with the words Stop the Invasion” and likened border crossings to home break-ins. On the campaign trail in December 2023, Donald Trump declared immigrants are poisoning the blood of our country.” Mere weeks ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lamented the state’s inability to shoot asylum seekers crossing the border because the Biden administration would charge us with murder.” These pronouncements mark a mainstreaming of eliminationist rhetoric: Where conservatives once coyly hinted at nativism, they now openly fantasize of murder.

While condemning the GOP’s rhetoric, Democrats have, at the same time, fed into it.

Less evident, however, is where Democrats stand. While condemning the GOP’s rhetoric, they have, at the same time, fed into it. In September 2023, New York Mayor Eric Adams declared the influx of asylum seekers would destroy New York City.” In a January interview, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin declared the crisis at the border is the greatest crisis we face in America.” While Democratic leaders are more circumspect, they have largely conceded the moral upper ground: I think Republicans are seeing the Democrats are real about border security, consistent with our principles,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in border negotiations. With Dems like these, who needs enemies?

And where is the party’s leader? President Joe Biden has done a U-turn since 2020, when he vowed to end for-profit immigrant detention and declared no business should profit from the suffering of desperate people fleeing violence.” Meanwhile, as of July 2023, approximately 90% of immigrants held daily in ICE detention were in private facilities. While Biden vowed in 2020 that there would not be another foot of wall constructed” under his leadership, his administration has pressed forward with plans to expand border wall construction, even waiving environmental protection laws for endangered wildlife. The administration also signaled willingness to drastically expand migrant detention and deportation in exchange for. military aid to Ukraine.

On some level, many high-ranking Democrats have decided that immigration is a liability for them. And perhaps it is — just not the way they think.

On some level, many high-ranking Democrats have decided that immigration is a liability for them. And perhaps it is — just not the way they think.

As immigration looms large over the 2024 election, In These Times convened a panel of organizers and thinkers to discuss the urgent stakes of inaction. U.S. Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.) took office in 2023 as the first Latina congresswoman in the Midwest. A daughter of immigrants and longtime organizer, Ramirez has co-sponsored more than a dozen immigrant rights bills. Hunter College associate professor Heba Gowayed is the author of Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential, which examines the institutional failures that have kept Syrian refugees in North America in a state of constant precarity. Victor Narro is a nationally recognized expert on the labor exploitation of immigrant workers and the former co-executive director of Sweatshop Watch. Carlos Rojas Rodriguez is a longtime immigrant justice organizer and former Bernie 2020 staffer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does the proposed border deal tell us about the state of immigration politics today?

CARLOS ROJAS RODRIGUEZ: Policies that the movement had taken for granted are on the line in a way we haven’t seen before — they’re openly discussed as bargaining chips to fund wars, to fund genocide. The traditional compromise was border security for legalization or a pathway to citizenship,” which we also didn’t like that much, but there was something to fight for. Now we’re seeing a completely different compromise about border security — an expansion of Title 42, HR-2 taking away asylum rights.

It’s just very clear that the immigrant community has been completely removed. We’re not even a point of consideration as to what do we give our folks.”

HEBA GOWAYED: The fact that we’re saying the quiet part out loud — that we’re grouping these things with a direct impact on Black and brown bodies globally and domestically — it’s a really telling moment. I think the question becomes, who do the Democrats imagine are their voting base? Because I know personally that these are make-it-or-break-it issues for me. I will not vote for genocide; I will not vote for a candidate who is systematically gung ho about telling people, Don’t come here.” These are the things that matter to my community.

I’m terrified because I know the other side has fascistic tendencies. But I’m struggling to find a candidate that is worthy of my vote. I think there’s a real question of whether the Democratic base is going to stick around.

I think the question becomes, who do the Democrats imagine are their voting base?

VICTOR NARRO: The border crisis is a contextual creation by the Republican Party. What we have is a broken immigration system: We’re not devoting the necessary resources for services, people are waiting forever for their application process petitions to resolve. Approximately 6 million undocumented immigrants were considered essential workers” during COVID-19, and they were providing essential services to keep us alive. And we couldn’t even get them work permits. They risked their lives to save our lives, and we couldn’t do the minimum and give them work authorization, we couldn’t do that. So we’ve got to just keep pushing.

REPRESENTATIVE DELIA RAMIREZ: These negotiations over supplemental aid have been absolutely dangerous. Democrats want Ukraine funding, but it cannot be at the cost of people at our border, and immigrants. We’re saying to the administration: You’re taking the bait for the most dangerous precedent. What’s next in negotiation if you’re going to allow border policy to be wrapped into budgeting conversations?”

Above: An asylum seeker from Venezuela embraces an infant after setting foot on U.S. soil in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Sept. 25, 2023. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

It often seems like Democrats allow Republicans to set the terms of the debate and discourse around migration. What do you think that means for 2024?

DELIA RAMIREZ: I just came from the Congressional Progressive Caucus meeting when we were talking exactly about this. The reality is — under a Democratic administration and a Democratic Senate — we are talking about draconian policies even beyond what Trump did.

I find myself in a lot of dissonance. I serve on the Homeland Security Committee. Oftentimes, I feel like one of the few voices — even on the Democratic side — really pushing and saying, We don’t have to fall into the narrative and the messaging that they’re using.” Because it doesn’t matter how much Democrats give — which seems to be everything, even the way we define seeking asylum — Republicans need to be able to portray chaos. And it has to be dragged out till November so that they can win the White House. Somehow, we’re taking that bait, allowing our own people to get scapegoated.

Then we’re asking, Why is it that Latinos continue to not show up to vote? Why is Trump leading with Latinos in the polls?” We are allowing someone who said he was going to fight for solutions on immigration to take us back even further from what Trump has done.

We have given into the Republican narrative in such a way that we’re beginning to sound like them.

Somehow, we have given into the Republican narrative in such a way that we’re beginning to sound like them instead of saying, Yeah, the fabric of this nation is dependent on immigrants.”

This is when representation matters. But not all skinfolk are kinfolk, because we have people that look like all of us here who are siding with Republicans — not only the Latino Republicans, but also folks on the Democratic side. With that said, I am grateful for the leadership of the CPC, particularly Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. She and others have said that we’re going to hold the line.

We are putting ankle monitors on people who are seeking asylum for themselves and their children. This is disgusting, and it’s unacceptable. A number of us are saying, Not under our name, not under our watch, we are not willing to negotiate on the life of refugees.”

CARLOS ROJAS RODRIGUEZ: Every time Democrats, since Obama, have responded to movement pressure by passing things like DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], the movement was readily able to transition from campaign work into electoral work. We saw 40-point margins of victories. Every time Democrats allowed Republicans to set the terms of the debate, it made it hard for the immigrant rights movement to campaign electorally. That is my fear walking into 2024.

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What should the conversation look like instead?

HEBA GOWAYED: The conversation has drifted so far from the actual human beings crossing the border and toward this notion that the border crisis is a crisis of people coming here — that the border crisis is a crisis of security, that it’s dangerous, that we really need to be stopping, expelling, deporting, enforcing. What we actually need to do is recognize these people as humans who are making a very difficult choice to migrate.

When we lose sight of the humanity of people, the conversation becomes about enforcement spending rather than, OK, how are you providing legal pathways? How are you meeting people?” I regularly get calls from folks: I’m here. I’ve been paroled. I’m with my wife and my kids. I don’t know what to do next. How do I get a work permit? I can’t find any assistance. What’s next?” And I don’t have an answer for these people. We, as a country, don’t have an answer.

A young man who was repatriated from US after his first attempt to cross the border, shows his most valuable items, a wallet and a bible, at Ciudad Juarez House of Migrannts on August 10, 2018. HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images

VICTOR NARRO: We used to have an immigration policy, historically, based on values and principles like family unity. I came to this country in 1964. I was a beneficiary of the 1965 law. I was 4, and I got my green card in six months.

We’ve fallen victim to a strategy that’s flawed, and so many people have been deported because of it. There have been 5 million deportations in this country since the mid 1990’s, most after 9/11 — three million under the Obama administration. His strategy was, Maybe if we appease the Republicans on enforcement, they will come to us…” I think we need to go back to a humane policy. Ankle monitors should be eliminated from the criminal justice system, for example. There’s a lot of studies on what ankle monitors do to a human being. Instead, we tend to look at these policies as a way of moving forward.

The birth rate is dropping in this country. In the future, our economy is going to have to depend a lot on immigrants. In California, we depend greatly on immigrants in major industries, and we’re now the fourth-largest economy in the world. I think a lot of this is attributable to our large immigrant workforce.

DELIA RAMIREZ: Victor, to add to what you just said, I was looking at some reports from 2022 — which we know are pretty outdated, considering 2023 — but 30 million people would be impacted if we started mass detention and mass deportations. Thirty million. In New Jersey, that would be about 14% of its population. Illinois would lose two congressional districts.

We say we don’t have enough money. You need money? Give people work permits. Legalize people. Let immigrants in. But it is absolutely crazy to me that what we’re doing is the absolute opposite. It’s almost like we want to live in this chaos.

I keep saying, Instead of all the border policy BS that we’re engaging with or even entertaining, what would it look like if we gave comprehensive, expansive work permits to people arriving now? And to the many people who have been in this country for 15, 20, 30 years, like my uncle?” That would grow our GDP, over a decade, by $1.7 trillion. We have at least 9 million unfilled jobs they could take. Think about that! You need money? Give people work permits. Legalize people. Let immigrants in.

You would think governors in red and blue states would be saying, Shoot, we need the money.” It is absolutely crazy to me that what we’re doing is the absolute opposite. It’s almost like we want to live in this chaos.

What would it look like if Democrats thought about immigrants as an asset, as a contribution, as a solution? If we legalize undocumented people today, it would actually extend Social Security by at least three decades. Immigrants would make sure Social Security recipients in Alabama have Social Security in 30 years.

HEBA GOWAYED: It would also reduce our exorbitant spending on border security, which is steadily mounting. It’s fiscally irresponsible, our approach to immigration, which is the headline that gets lost in this discourse of chaos. We’re actually in a position that Republicans should theoretically be against, because it is an insane expenditure.

So what are the key levers of power for shifting this landscape? Where should organizers and activists be focusing our time and resources?

CARLOS ROJAS RODRIGUEZ: The stakes are higher at this moment, but we have been in similar places where the immigrant rights movement was at odds with the Democratic Party. We saw it under Obama, from 2010 to 2012, when the Dream Act failed in Congress.

Then undocumented youth launched the campaign to hold Obama accountable during a re-election year, a similar reelection year we have going on today. There was an effective combination of the movement confronting the Obama administration, alongside courageous Democratic leaders willing to stand up internally and publicly calling on the president to use his executive power. That combination of tactics was effective. We were able to get the president at least to correct rhetoric and also pass policies that would allow us to see a path forward.

VICTOR NARRO: Just to add, in 2023, we were able to get deferred action for labor enforcement. This process provides an opportunity for undocumented workers who suffer labor violations to apply for deferred action while they file claims against their employers. We had to push the Biden administration and Department of Homeland Security hard to accomplish this executive order. But we have this executive order now. Undocumented workers who have suffered wage theft and workplace violations can apply for deferred action and be eligible for work permits. And so we continue to push for more efforts.

A child's shoe hangs caught in razor wire atop the bank of the Rio Grande on January 9, 2024 in Eagle Pass, Texas. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

DELIA RAMIREZ: I’m an insider now, but I’ve organized for many years, and I believe there is nothing more powerful than organizing. I don’t see our organizations on a regular basis here in the Capitol. My colleagues are not hearing from the collective in the ways they need to. We need to be taking space and raising our voices every single day. The Democrats have to see their constituents in their faces, saying, We will remember where you stood in this moment” — about what’s happening in Gaza, about what happens now for refugees who are trying to enter this country, and about the asylum system we are at the verge of overhauling and destroying.

HEBA GOWAYED: This point you’re making, Congresswoman Ramirez, is especially important because these are not separate issues. Gaza has been an open-air laboratory for border tech used in the United States. The surveillance technology is tested there. The watchtowers are designed there. Our foreign and domestic policies have always been intertwined.

And we need to have the same kind of conversation about how U.S. foreign policy produces situations in which people have to seek refuge. It’s a story of colonialism. It’s a story of extraction. It’s a story of environmental degradation. You could see the Syrian refugee crisis, for instance, as a result of the Iraq War — ISIS formed in a U.S. prison. We do the violence, the military interventions on people’s lands, then we close the borders to people who are seeking refuge from that violence. So it’s a double trauma.

Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-IL) speaks at a news conference in support of the Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19, 2023. ANNA MONEYMAKER VIA GETTY IMAGES

How is the legacy of U.S. interventions shaping migration patterns today?

DELIA RAMIREZ: We love to throw around the words root causes of migration,” but we don’t want to dive into the responsibility that the U.S. has. That it forced migration. The Northern Triangle in Latin America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) is a perfect example: We’re still seeing the impacts of the U.S.-backed coup that happened in Guatemala in 1954. It is an uncomfortable situation for us, because oftentimes Democrats have actually done this. It is not just Republicans.

But to what Heba said: Until we actually get to understand the role that the U.S. is playing in allowing and supporting the killing of children in Gaza — and the killing of families in Latin America — we’re going to continue to see people crossing at the levels they are. The difference is that more will die with all of these mass deportations that some Democrats were prepared to exchange for a supplemental bill.

VICTOR NARRO: Just to add to that: The border security enforcement” framework started under the Clinton administration. Operation Gatekeeper was a measure implemented during his presidency to increase border enforcement. It was one of his many bills that really had a negative impact on the lives of immigrants in this country. Historically, we used to have what’s known as circular migration in this country; there used to be the ebbs and flows. For example, farmworkers would come here seasonally to work and then go back. But after 9/11, we became, in essence, a national security surveillance country.

We have to reframe the debate. We cannot keep having the same conversation about border security, when really we should be having a conversation about what we owe people.

CARLOS ROJAS RODRIGUEZ: We can begin by admitting that damage has been done. We still have classified documents on the U.S. role in the Chilean coup. A first step could just be declassifying these and admitting military interventions, economic interventions took place in so many places — in Central America, Nicaragua and so on.

HEBA GOWAYED: We have to reframe the debate. We cannot keep having the same conversation about border security, when really we should be having a conversation about what we owe people, toward recognizing this full history, why somebody would choose to leave their home, choose to pay coyotes and choose to cross in these very difficult journeys, choose to expose themselves and their children to violence, know that there’s a risk of death to get here, when they know they’re going to be treated like shit when they get here. That is not a decision you make lightly. These people aren’t idiots. It’s a very, very difficult decision to make. It’s a decision, however, that a lot of people make. And we need to ask ourselves why and how we are complicit in the conditions that forced them to leave.

If we were to take seriously what the United States owes people, what would a visionary, progressive immigration platform look like?

CARLOS ROJAS RODRIGUEZ: At the Immigrant Justice Network, which I support as a strategist consultant, we have actually just decided to ignore the political reality of the time — because anything we try to get through Congress is poisonous and dangerous for our folks — and instead really think about what is bold, imaginative, what actually brings forth dignity and respect for our folks. We came up with the New Way Forward Act.

Congresswoman Ramirez is one of only 31 Democrats on the bill, which just reflects how much work there is to be done. We have pushed this as a marker that could be referenced in Congress to have some counterweight to what’s happening in the country on immigration. This is not a perfect bill, because we had to get it introduced. Some of the items are things Biden promised, like ending for-profit detention nationwide, ending 287(g) programs nationwide, ending police and ICE collaboration nationwide.

A girl hits a piñata resembling the border wall during the 29th Posada Sin Fronteras (Posada Withouth Borders) on December 10, 2022. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images

And there are other policies in there that we just need. For example, as Victor said, 5 million people have been deported over the last 20 years or so — 3 million of them under the Obama administration, and nearly 300,000 under Biden. We’ve got to give people the right to reunite with their families and loved ones in this country. That’s also in the policy. We’ve got to give judges discretion to rule on cases beyond deportable” or not deportable.” That’s also in the Act.

And we cannot have an immigration policy that hunts people 20 years, 30 years, 10 years back — that judges them based on something they did decades ago — to decide whether they should be deported. But in the future, we need to go much further than a pathway to citizenship and we need to stop even accepting that the deal is going to be citizenship for increased enforcement and criminalization.

An ideal policy has to elevate three pillars: Push back criminalization, eradicate enforcement, defund ICE. And we also, of course, need to legalize folks. I feel like legalization should be an automatic trigger. Every year, we should be legalizing people, because every year we have people that come into this country, and this country needs them anyway.

VICTOR NARRO: I agree with Carlos. We’ve had these moments where we push forward similar legislation, and even though we fall short, it enables us to come together under a common platform, and we become more intersectional about all the issues so that, even within pushing for immigration reform, nobody gets excluded. We become a more inclusive movement.

Closing thoughts?

HEBA GOWAYED: I loved hearing Carlos say that we have to sort of imagine the future that we want, because we can’t think or imagine or dream within the context of the status quo, which is devastating.

And as somebody who’s Arab, as somebody who’s looking at people in the desert who look like me, who are getting mass-murdered and it’s being funded by this regime, I would just add that, toward a future progressive policy, we have to recognize the humanity of people both domestically and abroad.

An asylee is somebody — a person who is seeking asylum. Somebody who is being killed in Gaza is a human being with a family, a mother, a father, a daughter, a brother, a journalist, an artist. The same kinds of descriptions are true for immigrants who come here. These are human beings just like us, with potential just like us, with emotions just like us. And we need to center that in any platform moving forward.

CARLOS ROJAS RODRIGUEZ: I think another issue for the movement is that we still haven’t figured out how to answer the question of future flow. What we say to the public and to the politicians is that we just solve the issue with a pathway to citizenship for those already here, knowing very well that five, 10, 20 years down the line, there’s going to be another 10 million people to legalize. So I feel like the only way to really, fully inject these conversations around imperialism into the debate is to be openly explicit that there’s always going to be a need to legalize people, as long as the U.S. continues to behave the way it does, militarily and economically.

DELIA RAMIREZ: I echo a lot of what Heba, Victor and Carlos have said. I keep hearing people say, We don’t mind immigrants. We just want them to come the legal way.” There is no legal way. That’s the reality.

No one wants to come the illegal way. They don’t want to pay $15,000 to a coyote to risk their lives, then get deported because they get caught at the border and have to do it again and still owe that 15 grand.

No one wants to come the illegal way. They don’t want to pay $15,000 to a coyote to risk their lives, then get deported because they get caught at the border and have to do it again and still owe that 15 grand.

This whole idea that we have open borders — people wouldn’t be dying in the Rio Grande if we did. We also don’t have legal pathways. And then to top it off, we haven’t done anything about immigration policy in over 30 years. This is not a Republican issue. This is an all-of-us issue.

Democrats and Republicans have failed our communities for over 30 years. Do you know the reason my mother and father are U.S. citizens is because of [the] 1986 [immigration reform act]? I was 3 years old.

We are operating as if Republicans control everything. Republicans barely have the majority. At this point, I think they’re a majority by six. What I have said repeatedly to the administration is that, if I were the president, I would be using all the executive action authority I have. And sue me, take me to the Supreme Court. But we have to have the political courage in the moment to do what is right.

Approximately 6 million undocumented immigrants were considered “essential workers” during COVID-19, and they were providing essential services to keep us alive. And we couldn’t even get them work permits.

VICTOR NARRO: We’ve got to push the Biden administration. He can choose political courage as the way forward. So what if he gets sued? Showing us that political courage, I think, would make a difference with immigrant communities in November.

DELIA RAMIREZ: He could be the president that does what other Democratic presidents have not done in the last 30-something years. He could be expanding work permits, he could be legalizing Dreamers, he could be making sure to prioritize and send money to these sanctuary cities, not just pennies. We could be saying, Chicago, you are a model city, we will have our convention there, and I am going to make sure that sanctuary city’ becomes a law of the land.” I can go on with 1,000 things we could be doing. When 2% of new arrivals are the only ones that have any legal representation at no cost, shame on us. What we’re doing is caving into fear. No one wins.

D” might be at the end of my party [affiliation], but I am a daughter of immigrants and the wife of a Dreamer before I am a congressperson. And last I checked, it was immigrants and the children of immigrants that sent me to this place. We, as the progressives in this chamber, have to do everything in our power not to go back, but to move forward. And we depend on you to agitate us and get more of us on the right side.

That’s the only way we’re going to be able to move forward.

Disclosure: Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 nonprofit, In These Times does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.

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Natascha Elena Uhlmann is the Audience Engagement Editor at In These Times. A writer and organizer, her work has appeared in The Guardian, Truthout, Rewire News, and Teen Vogue. She is also the author of Abolish ICE.

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