Can We Remake a Broken Immigration System?

Can We Remake a Broken Immigration System?

If Democrats take back political power in November and want to seriously address the plight of migrants and the undocumented, they’ll need to rebuild immigration policy from the ground up.

A migrant caravan marches through Mexico on its way to the United States in 2018. (Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/Getty Images)

If the #coronavirus has taught us anything it is the lengths people will go to when desperate. Next time you want to judge boat people, refugees, migrants fleeing war torn lands—remember we fought over toilet paper.

—Internet meme, early March 2020

Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ During Pandemic

—New York Times headline, April 2, 2020

The great pandemic of our age will bring us, as Arundhati Roy has written, through a portal. In the United States, what lies on the other side will depend, foremost, on the outcome of the presidential election.

If Donald Trump is reelected, we face the likelihood of a full-blown authoritarian state. For immigrants—legal and undocumented, already here or trying to come, asylum seekers and refugees—life will be more miserable, more vulnerable, and more frightening. The immigrant rights movement will remain on the defensive. And because the Trump agenda calls for drastically reducing legal immigration as well as rounding up the undocumented for deportation, one wonders how the “essential” work of the nation (agriculture, food processing, dishwashing, construction, domestic work, healthcare) will be done.

It isn’t too far-fetched to imagine undocumented immigrants arrested and sent to work on chain gangs in the fields and in food factories before they are deported. The Geary Act of 1892, which extended the Chinese Exclusion Act, included a provision for forced hard labor pending deportation. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Wong Wing v. United States (1896) voided that part of the Geary Act, but the Court’s majority today cannot be relied upon to uphold precedent if precedent impedes the administration’s political agenda. As for chain gangs, ICE routinely shackles and chains together migrants rounded up in workplace raids.

If the Democrats take back the White House and the Senate in November, there will be two immigration agendas. The first will be to roll back the policies of the Trump regime: the “Muslim” travel ban, zero-tolerance for all undocumented immigrants, ICE raids, indefinite detention, rescission of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a new public-charge rule restricting green card eligibility, the near elimination of refugee admissions, and the refusal of asylum seekers. These reversals can be done immediately and administratively, just as easily as they were imposed, through executive order and administrative fiat. That ought to be just the beginning.

What is the second agenda? It isn’t “comprehensive immigration reform,” the misleading name for compromise legislation that trades legalization for more border security. That plan has been stalled in Congress for a decade, and it is no...