One of the early actions taken by President Joe Biden was proposing a major overhaul in the nation’s immigration system in a bill called the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. The bill, if passed, would provide legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants, and be the most sweeping reform of U.S. immigration since 1986.
The proposed bill offers the possibility of citizenship to over 11 million undocumented immigrants. These people would be given temporary legal status and be allowed to apply for permanent residence after five years, after passing a criminal background check and proving they paid taxes. Three years later, they would become eligible to apply for citizenship.
The history of U.S. immigration is fraught with hypocrisy, inconsistencies, prejudices, and injustices, but also real opportunities. It’s ironic that immigration is one of the nation’s more insoluble controversies, though its origins are steeped in immigration.
A ship, the Mayflower, docked near Cape Cod in Massachusetts in 1620 bringing the original immigrants, 102 English passengers, the Pilgrims, and 20 crew members to America. Following this landing, more ships brought migrants from the British Isles, and what was once a small community spread across the land. These immigrants found the land occupied by Native Americans, but they chose to chase these rightful owners off, wantonly slaughtering them in the process. As the usurpers turned to toiling the land growing tobacco, cotton and sugar, unable to cope with the hard rigors of plantation life, they traveled half-way around the world to West Africa. There they captured Africans, forcing them in overcrowded ships to travel to America to work plantations under excruciating cruelty as slaves.
On the scarred backs of these Africans, America’s economy and reputation as the world’s richest country grew, attracting more immigrants from across the globe to find jobs and a better life. These immigrants were welcomed here, and after 1886 were greeted at New York City’s port by the towering Statue of Liberty inviting “The tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
As the country’s economy continued to develop, especially after World War II, successive presidential administrations, realizing the workforce needed to be sustained by more immigrant workers, passed new immigration laws and reformed existing ones.
History confirms there is no doubt whatsoever the United States is a land of immigrants built by immigrants.
In some states like Florida, immigrants gradually far outnumber people born in those states. Florida, because of its geographical proximity, attracted droves of Cuban immigrants fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime, and were warmly welcomed with open arms. Even in 1980 when Castro played America by opening the Port of Mariel and forcibly, over a period of five months, deported over 125,000 dissidents, including Cuba’s “wretched refuse” of convicted criminals, mental hospital patients, and prostitutes, people who Castro called “trash,” in the Mariel Boat Lift, Democratic President Jimmy Carter eagerly welcomed them. Ironically, most of them later registered as Republicans.
As immigrants continued to flow into the country, people who came as visitors overstayed, determined to share the American dream. Today, there are well over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., some brought as children by their parents and are ignorant of the countries from which they originate.
Successive administrations have failed to legislate immigration reforms that address the legal status of these 11 million immigrants. While the last administration used its tenure between 2017 to 2021 to make it more difficult for new immigrants to enter the country, or become permanent residents, not much was done about reforms to address the large community of America’s undocumented immigrants who continue to live under adverse circumstances.
Now, the ball falls firmly into the court of Joe Biden’s administration. Although Biden has slight majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, it will be a Herculean task to succeed in getting the reforms he outlined in his proposed bill.
Compounding Biden’s problem is that the hungry masses in Central America are seizing the opportunity with a new administration in place to come to America. But, as serious as the plight of these people are, it may not be advantageous to the administration to open our borders to thousands of refugees.
For years, it has been advocated that the U.S. address the grave problems of poverty, violence, and corruption in Central America, and stem the flow of refugees, by increasing financial aid to the region.
Biden seems to accept this view in indicating he wants to enact a $4 billion aid plan to Central America.
It’s painfully frustrating that for decades the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S. has been promised potential reforms only to be disappointed. Now that another opportunity has arisen, it’s incumbent on immigration advocates to aggressively push the Biden administration, and supportive Republicans, to get the proposed bill passed.
These undocumented immigrants, like the original immigrants that came on the Mayflower, the Africans brought here forcefully, and the Cubans that came on the Mariel Boatlift have helped to build America. It’s full time that reforms are implemented to treat them as legal Americans.