24 August 2016

Immigration deadlock at the heart of the 2016 race


A century ago, the immigration debate was not focused on the border with Mexico but a small island just a mile from Manhattan. Instead of Hispanic migrants, the focus of America’s natives was on the millions of Europeans entering their country, 70% of which passed through Ellis Island. Its great hall is truly humbling, with bright white tiles covering an arched roof, and huge windows allowing light to pour in from both sides. America’s glow of opportunity still captivates migrants today.

Fleeing war, persecution and poverty, millions travelled miles across the sea in hope of a better, more prosperous life. For some, though, Ellis Island became a place of anguish, where their family was separated. While most were eventually reunited, following a court appearance or stint in hospital, a number of families weren’t so lucky. One heartbreaking story at Ellis Island recounted a family who had made the 3,000-mile trip from Naples, only for their grandmother to be sent all the way back on medical grounds. They never saw her again.

In the 1900s, those examples of split families were very rare – only 2% of migrants were deported – when today these stories of broken families are all too common. Enshrined in the 14th amendment of the US Constitution is the principle that “all persons born or naturalised in the United States” have a right to citizenship. Therefore, the children of unauthorised immigrants born in the country have full rights to citizenship. But their parents still do not, and live under the constant threat of deportation.

According to Pew Research, in 2012 there were 4.5 million US-born children living with illegal-immigrant parents. In 2013, the Senate passed an immigration bill looking to offer a path to naturalisation for unauthorised immigrants, but it was blocked by the House of Representatives. President Barack Obama then resorted to executive action to try to protect the legal recognition of 4 million long-stay immigrants, who have no criminal record and US-citizen children. After a long struggle, in June the Supreme Court justices drew 4-4, thus blocking his plan.

This has resulted in an uncomfortable deadlock. After the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February, Republican Senators have unprecedentedly refused to hear Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland. This places a great deal more emphasis on the 2016 presidential election, the winner of which will name the next Supreme Court judge, and most likely tip the balance in favour of a liberal or conservative immigration policy.

Disagreements on the issue do not always follow party lines, and the 2013 Senate bill – in which fourteen Republicans crossed the aisle – showed just how important bipartisan action can be in making progress on immigration. Meanwhile, under Obama there have been a large amount of deportations splitting families, the US Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) even suggesting a controversial 400,000 deportation goal in 2010. However, in 2016 the choice between a Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump presidency offers a stark choice on immigration reform.

Secretary Clinton’s liberal immigration plan seeks to offer a “pathway to full and equal citizenship within her first 100 days in office”, and her naturalisation attempt will try to go further than Obama ever could. If successful, this would add over ten million people to the population, while Congressional Budget Office estimates suggest it could have a dramatic positive effect on deficit reduction. Far from fugitives scurrying under the shadows, we are talking about tax-paying workers who already contribute significantly to the American economy.

In direct contrast to her counterpart’s well-documented comments about immigrants, Clinton positions herself as the candidate who is fighting their corner. It is no surprise that she is polling so dramatically better than Trump with ethnic minorities, voters who could prove very significant in swing states like Florida. Clinton aims to protect Obama’s executive actions of legal protection for long-stay illegal immigrants, a battle which is set to continue in the Supreme Court next year.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, has famously called for a wall on the Mexico border, and an increase of deportations of illegal immigrants. While Clinton emphasises naturalisation, for Trump it is border security and deportation. When his campaign first started, like many other Republican candidates, Donald Trump suggested there might be a way to eliminate “anchor babies” – children of illegal immigrants who become US citizens – which his website once described as “the biggest magnet for illegal immigration”. He also called for an unprecedented and highly-criticised plan to deport illegal immigrants en masse. These kinds of changes are a very radical platform for a presidential candidate to run on.

This big talk about getting tough on migration caused quite a stir, and helped him win huge swathes of support among the GOP membership. However, in the past week his plans have been gradually softening, aware of the electoral pitfalls of continuing to alienate of ethnic minorities, the near-impossible nature of his mass deportation suggestions, and very emotive issue of families split by birthright citizenship. After the latest shakeup in his campaign team, Trump’s new campaign manager signalled a change in tack, suggesting that his plans for a “deportation force” were now “to be determined”.

Last weekend Trump met with Hispanic leaders, and last night he addressed the rumours of change in a Texas town hall event with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. The GOP presidential candidate appeared to abandon his long-held radical pledge to deport all 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. In respect to long-stay illegal immigrants, Trump was noncommittal, saying he “would come out with a decision very soon” as to how he would deal with them. Instead of making new laws, and even changing a constitutional amendment, he aims to follow the laws on immigration policy and be more aggressive in deporting unauthorised immigrants.

Despite Trump’s shift from his radical, unrealistic deportation plan – characterised by offensive, xenophobic comments towards migrants – at the core of his campaign remains the will to find and deport as many illegal immigrants as he can. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, wants to give those people a path to American citizenship, instead of kicking them out of the country.

The 2016 presidential election is now the frontline in a battle over immigration which will affect the lives of millions of people in the coming years. Much like the Europeans caught in limbo on Ellis Island, for those immigrants living unauthorised in the United States, a few nervous months lie ahead.

Jack Graham is a political commentator who specialises in American politics.