MIAMI — The restrictive policies of the Trump administration, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, have reduced migration to the United States to its lowest level in decades.
However, there’s little doubt that more immigrants will start coming once Joe Biden becomes president. And that’s OK. The United States has a historic opportunity to regain its image as a country of immigrants. But it won’t be easy.
It’s no surprise that the end of the racist, anti-immigrant Trump administration would once again make the United States an attractive destination for migrants, particularly considering the challenges many face at home. Of course, immigrants come to the United States from many countries, but half of them are Latin Americans, so that’s whom I’m focusing on.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created the worst economic crisis in Latin America in 120 years — with a 7.7 percent drop in regional gross domestic product, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Emigrating to the north is the only alternative for many families. The disastrous effects of the pandemic have exacerbated the devastation caused in Central America by Hurricanes Eta and Iota in November, just as it has worsened the violence, inequality and hunger that plague the region. All this would make anyone want to flee.
Leonel Burgos, part of a caravan in Honduras that left for the United States in December, told Univision that Mr. Biden “said he was going to help all immigrants; let’s see if it’s true.” The caravan was dismantled by the Honduran authorities a few days later. “As immigrants, what we ask the president who just won is that he help us — please,” said Juan Fernando Benítez, another member of the caravan.
None of this is new: Whenever there are problems in the south, the dangerous road to the north becomes more enticing. Hunger is stronger than fear.
After the pandemic and the horrors of the Trump era, the United States must return to its historic tradition of receiving foreigners. Doing so will help the country emerge from its economic crisis. Immigrants work the toughest jobs, create employment opportunities for others and give back to their communities. Undocumented immigrants contribute more than $11 billion a year in state and local taxes. Immigrants are an essential part of our multiethnic, multicultural society.
But before the Biden administration can address the challenge of new migrant caravans heading north, it will have to deal with the tens of thousands of asylum seekers, mostly Central Americans, already stranded in Mexico along the U.S. border.
In one of last year’s presidential debates, Mr. Biden criticized the Trump policy that requires those seeking asylum to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed. “This is the first president in the history of the United States of America that anybody seeking asylum has to do it in another country,” Mr. Biden said. Now those refugees will be his problem. If he wants to be the anti-Trump president, Mr. Biden will have to resolve this situation promptly and humanely.
The incoming administration has already sent the message that it will be much more welcoming to immigrants — and not only those seeking to enter the United States, but also those who are already here. The administration has a long list of promises to fulfill in its first 100 days, from legalizing America’s approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants and protecting Dreamers to granting temporary protected status to the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans living in the United States who escaped Nicolás Maduro’s regime.
Mr. Biden’s immigration proposals stand in stark contrast to policies imposed by President Trump. In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, a conservative outlet, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, estimated that up to 140,000 immigrants could cross the border each month under Mr. Biden. “I mean, you saw the ‘Trump effect’ when President Trump came into office,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “You’re going to see the ‘Biden effect’ as well. And it’s going to be the opposite. And they’re feeding that, and it’s really bad for America. It’s going to be a humanitarian problem, particularly in the midst of Covid.”
The Central American migrant caravans and the situation in Mexico’s refugee camps could become the Biden administration’s first major international crises. The president-elect has a $4 billion investment plan to create jobs in Central America and prevent more people from migrating to the United States to look for work — though this plan isn’t going to have an effect in the region anytime soon.
As long as there aren’t enough Covid-19 vaccines for everyone, it’s unlikely the Biden administration will allow a massive influx of refugees and asylum seekers into the country. These months of vaccine scarcity will hopefully provide the administration the time it needs to formulate and execute a new immigration policy that can address the crisis.
But there is little time to maneuver, and congressional negotiations won’t be easy. Mr. Biden and his nominee for secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas — a Cuban-born immigrant — will have to deal simultaneously with the urgency of the caravans and those barely surviving in Mexico’s camps. They’ll also have to deal with the unauthorized immigrants who have been in the United States for decades, waiting for their status to be regularized.
Mr. Biden shouldn’t build walls or separate immigrant families or bar migrants from Muslim-majority countries, as Mr. Trump has. Good leaders are defined by how they treat the most vulnerable in their charge, not the wealthiest or most powerful. And immigrants are, by far, the most vulnerable.
Yes, there will be more immigrants in the United States with Mr. Biden in the White House. Under Mr. Trump, annual net immigration fell to just 595,000 people, the fewest since the 1980s, according to the Brookings Institution. In the two years immediately preceding the Trump presidency, the United States saw net immigration of more than one million people annually.
That’s the United States I recognize and admire, the one that allowed me to become a citizen — and the one that almost disappeared during the Trump administration. Now what I want above all else is for the immigrants who come after me to have the same opportunities and freedoms I’ve had.
Jorge Ramos (@jorgeramosnews) is an anchor for the Univision network, a contributing opinion writer and the author of, most recently, “Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.”
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