Guest columnist Shel Horowitz: Backlash against immigrants inhumane

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By SHEL HOROWITZ

Published: 12-16-2023 7:00 AM

Remember when the previous administration tore babies and children from their families’ arms and locked them in little cages? Bad news: Republicans in Congress and far-right activists, including that former president, are heating up even worse anti-immigrant plans using language that sounds alarmingly like Hitler’s speeches in the early 1930s. They have made it clear they intend to wage war on immigrants.

Republicans in Congress have written dangerous, authoritarian, and (under international and U.S. law) illegal restrictions on asylum into the supplementary funding measure for aid to beleaguered Ukraine. The Democrats and historian Heather Cox Richardson referred to this can of worms as a poison pill.

That former president, who is leading for the Republican nomination by a huge margin, has openly called for a mass roundup and deportation of tens of thousands of immigrants. He has even pledged to revoke automatic citizenship for those born in this country: a principle of U.S. law since at least 1868 and going back in part to a law passed in 1790. And he has announced several other drastic repressive measures against immigrants — and against the news media, liberals, and others he doesn’t like, should he be returned to office.

Even President Joe Biden says he’d consider some of the ugly, inhumane immigration proposals from Republicans in order to get the funding for Ukraine.

Biden also kicked the rug out from under immigrants, immigration advocates, and environmentalists with a shocking executive order that not only fast-tracked key sections of Donald Trump’s border wall but overrode 26 environmental laws including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act in order to ramrod this project through. Yet Biden himself admits that the border wall will not even work.

Clearly, a backlash from MAGA-Republican extremists is spiraling out of control, and leading us down a path that puts democracy itself at risk. We must completely reframe the entire immigration discussion, dumping the failed narratives and policies from both parties that treat immigrants as criminals.

Most immigrants attempt to come to the U.S., often making long, arduous, and extremely hazardous journeys, because their lives have become untenable in their home countries (often due to earlier U.S. political interventions in those countries.) Why do we reward immigrants’ desire to work, contribute, and create better lives by throwing them in detention for months or even years, denying work permits, engaging in open xenophobia and racism, and deporting them right back into the danger they fled?

Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice of Western Massachusetts traveled to the border in early 2020. We met with asylum seekers and their advocates, observed the infamous “tent courts,” talked with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents, and heard numerous heartbreaking stories.

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Growing up under the shadow of the Holocaust as children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of immigrants, or immigrants ourselves, we feel empathy and responsibility for our migrant friends on the border — and for the migrants, longtime residents, and even citizens in our midst who are placed at risk by authoritarians gathering their strength and marshaling military force against people fleeing for their lives.

What a better future could look like

Let’s welcome immigrants instead of fearing them. Immigrants from all countries should receive the same help and oversight we’ve offered to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. While it’s prudent to screen out criminals, the vast majority are not drug dealers or gang members, but hard-working people fleeing for their/their families’ lives. The U.S. has welcomed Ukrainians fleeing conflict. Why can’t we extend the same protections and pathway to permanent status to our Black and Brown neighbors on the southern border and Afghans who fled the Taliban?

The U.S. has a major shortage of workers for lower-wage and professional/medical jobs, many of which could be filled by immigrants. An immigrant-positive approach could help address the crushing labor problem for U.S. businesses, and possibly avoid repeating the supply-chain failures of the early pandemic.

Taxpayers pay huge sums for detention, deportation, and surveillance and are about to pay for a useless and environmentally destructive border wall. Meanwhile, businesses face an acute worker shortage.

A more just immigration system would be a win-win for progressives, businesses, and especially those who desperately seek safety. Our whole society is enriched by the talents, skills, and cultural contributions of immigrants when they are welcomed into our communities.

Shel Horowitz is a member of Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice of Western Massachusetts, which has endorsed this op-ed.