After weeks of negotiations, the immigration reform proposal to address the emergency at the border emerged from the U.S. Senate. The bill, negotiated by Republican and Democratic senators, provided for an automatic freeze on all admissions if daily entries reached 5,000, calculated on a weekly average (asylum applications would be processed again after a number of days below this threshold). It would also speed up the evaluation of asylum applications. In addition to immigration measures, the package included the authorization of aid requested by Biden for Ukraine and Israel (including more than $10 billion in humanitarian supplies, even though the U.S. has currently halted all assistance to civilians affected by the U.S.-made bombs raining down on Gaza).
The draft is the result of a rare mediation process between the parties on an issue usually left in the realm of rhetoric and demagoguery, and that is precisely why it will have great difficulty in getting the necessary votes in the Republican-majority House.
The year 2023 was a record-setter on the U.S. southern border, with more than 2 million arrivals in the United States. The last year also brought a transformation from historic economic migration – predominantly Mexican and Central American workers – to the global refugee flood, more akin to the phenomenon affecting Europe and the West in general, faced with the epochal flow of refugees running from war and collapse.
Republicans have blamed Biden for canceling the automatic deportation and family separation policies enacted by Trump. In reality, the roots of the phenomenon are far more complex roots, and in the American hemisphere it is inextricably linked to the previous behavior of the U.S. in its “backyard.”
Tuesday’s elections in El Salvador served as a paradigmatic reminder of this fact. In that country, in the 1980s, the Reagan government supported the authoritarian regime, guilty of heinous crimes, which caused a wave of refugees which went specifically to the US. Amid the urban decay, many migrants formed youth gangs such as the notorious Mara Salvatrucha. In the 1990s thousands of juvenile delinquents were repatriated to El Salvador where they sparked the outbreak of criminality that destabilized the country, paving the way for Nayib Bukele’s securitarian dictatocracy.
In addition to the direct responsibility, there are the geopolitical dynamics of capital, now taking up the role of colonial imperialism. All these elements were well-represented in an encampment close to the border wall which we visited on Sunday. In a clearing on the side of the highway near the small town of Jacumba, California, a hundred asylum seekers were crowded around campfires to shelter from the cold of the desert and the altitude of thousands of feet. For months, this clearing had been used by authorities to “park” new arrivals, without shelter or food, sometimes for several days. There were men, women and children at the shelter, even infants, waiting to apply for protection from the exploitation and violence in their respective countries. In the makeshift camp, people spoke Urdu, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Pashtun. And the camp was within sight of the highway where the convoy of Trumpist “patriots” calling for closing the border was passing that day: all emblematic for how the issue constantly shifts between dramatic humanitarian crisis, oblivion and sovereignist theatrics.
Due to Trump’s opposition – acting as a sort of shadow-president – the bill seems doomed to fail and to go down in history as a hypocritical draft law, warped by electoral pressures. To get funding for his wars, Biden was willing to agree to degrade asylum rights and implement many of the restrictions demanded by conservatives. The bill would also strengthen presidential powers, something his successor – i.e. Trump if he wins in November – would inherit. And its main provision, the ”automatic” closure of the border depending on the numbers of people coming through, would delegate humanitarian decisions to an absolutist algorithm.
For his part, Trump is demanding that his people close ranks so as not to concede any electoral advantage to his rival, claiming exclusive intellectual property over the iron fist approach. In essence, the bill is a bipartisan abdication of any ethical approach to a problem that is “insoluble” but deserves far more effort and honesty. And far more humanity.