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Overhauling Our Immigration System Begins with Citizenship for All

A participant folds her hands of a copy of the Oath of Allegiance and an American flag while listening to speeches during a naturalization ceremony
This blog is the first in a series outlining a reimagined, just, and humane immigration system for the United States
A participant folds her hands of a copy of the Oath of Allegiance and an American flag while listening to speeches during a naturalization ceremony
Madhuri Grewal,
Former Federal Immigration Policy Counsel,
ACLU National Political Advocacy Department
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October 9, 2020

As we approach the end of President Trump’s first term, it’s important to understand why and how he has inflicted such damage on our nation’s immigration system and advanced his anti-immigrant, racist agenda. Trump has been able to systematically undermine our immigration laws and principles of fundamental fairness because our immigration system is fundamentally broken. It has been for decades.

Even before Trump sat in the Oval Office, we routinely expected policy responses like extreme vetting, deportations without due process, and blank checks from Congress and the executive branch for a massive, unhelmed immigration enforcement system. As our enforcement system grew, Congress was repeatedly unable to pass a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country. This is how Trump and Stephen Miller, the driver of his immigration policy, are able to issue policies that inflict pain on tens of millions of people.

So, what’s next? How do we move forward when the damage is so sweeping?

An inclusive pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented and stateless people living in the United States — without caveats or tradeoffs — is the first move. Citizenship for these 11 million people would mean that no president could rip the rug out from underneath more than 700,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, 320,000 Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, or the millions of long-time residents whose lives and status have come to depend on who is in the White House. It would also mean that federal lawmakers across the political spectrum could no longer use undocumented and stateless immigrants as leverage for justifying even more enforcement.

Both political parties have used immigrants to defend unprecedented investment in immigration enforcement. Trump repeatedly used Dreamers as bargaining chips to fund his campaign promise for more border walls. In 2013, a pathway to citizenship in an ultimately unsuccessful Senate bill was predicated on a last-minute, back-room deal for a $46 billion “border surge,” adding unprecedented surveillance, agents, and enforcement to an already militarized border.

A clean bill, one that provides a broad and inclusive pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people without increasing funding for immigration and border enforcement, is the solution. And as we fight for this path to citizenship in Congress, we will continue to pursue relief for Dreamers and those eligible for TPS and Deferred Enforcement Departure, whose lives have been thrown into limbo by the Trump administration’s revocation of these policies.

The last four years have shown us what our existing enforcement infrastructure is capable of: A record high of 55,000 immigrants incarcerated per day; children and babies ripped out of their parents arms by Border Patrol agents; an end to asylum; forced hysterectomies in detention; a rise in contracts with private prison corporations; unprecedented raids on communities; tear gassed and malnourished children caged at the border; protestors snatched off the streets of Portland into unmarked vehicles; and extensive policy changes that will take decades to undo. We need a serious overhaul of our system to address these harms, but we need a path to citizenship that keeps families together, and one that rejects pairing this path with tradeoffs for more enforcement and border militarization.

Immigrants, their loved ones, and our nation deserve better than the racist policies of the Trump era, and we will keep fighting for it. As our nation reckons with our legacy of white supremacy, providing full citizenship to millions of Black and Brown immigrants is critical to realizing the promise our nation has yet to deliver, despite exploiting their labor for generations. In spite of this history, immigrants continue to step up as essential workers, working on the front lines of this pandemic and risking their lives to protect our loved ones and communities.

Nationwide, there are approximately 19.8 million “essential” immigrant workers, risking their lives under the constant threat of exposure. There are 1.7 million immigrant medical and health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients, and 27,000 DACA recipients working as doctors, nurses and paramedics. Undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in federal taxes each year, and yet have been inexplicably left out of COVID-relief packages. Immigrants are essential, now and for years to come — they are part of our communities, our families, and our shared history.

We need a clean, inclusive pathway to citizenship that doesn’t include more tradeoffs and doesn’t scapegoat immigrants deemed less than deserving. Because “we the people” means all of us, regardless of immigration status.

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