Editor’s Note: Tim Kane is the president of the American Lyceum and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book is “The Immigrant Superpower.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
How many times has the Biden White House had an unresolved conflict between idealism and pragmatism on the issue of immigration? How many times has it hesitated to take action, opting instead for political messaging? The sad answer to both questions is: every time.
Most of the officials appointed by President Joe Biden to work on immigration have resigned in frustration, according to a bombshell report from The New York Times in April. “The White House has been divided by furious debates over how – and whether – to proceed in the face of a surge of migrants crossing the southwest border,” the report said.
Some wanted more openness to immigrants of all kinds. Others wanted a coherent set of rules to be applied to the millions of people at the border. And some others wanted a compromise with Republicans to create a new merit-based, green-card system. They all got nothing.
Rather than make a policy choice, too often this White House plays politics. Early on, last year, it engaged in a rhetorical word game whether a crisis even existed. It blocked Cubans fleeing communism while allowing in just over 1 million individuals who crossed the border illegally.
It blamed everything on the Trump administration, while pretending Barack Obama’s executive actions hadn’t led to an explosion of families and minors crossing the border. Worst of all, the Biden administration reflexively points to “root causes” of poverty and violence, even though those conditions have been dramatically improving for a decade across Central America.
Meanwhile, the border surge grew exponentially worse.
A new report from the Department of Homeland Security for August confirmed over 2 million border apprehensions and expulsions this year so far. Previously, the United States only experienced more than 1 1/2 million apprehensions a few times in its history: during the late 1990s and then 2021. At the current pace, that record could be doubled by the end of this year. And next year, if no policies change, it could double again.
Some advocates ask why this is a problem. Immigrants make America stronger, right? As the author of “The Immigrant Superpower,” I agree in principle while also cautioning that flimsy standards mixed with unenforced rules is a recipe for chaos.
Legal immigrants add brains, brawn and bravery to America. First- and second-generation immigrants have been awarded 20% of the US military’s Medals of Honor. Furthermore, immigrants tend to be more patriotic toward America and passionate about the American dream than the native-born.
When we ponder what Biden should do to address the immigration mess at the border, the honest answer is: something, anything. Because the status quo of playing politics while seemingly ignoring policy is not only politically divisive, it’s also missing a golden opportunity.
To be sure, there is a partisan gap, but focusing on that ignores a surprising fact. More American voters of all types – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike – support increased immigration than in past decades. Gallup polls going back decades confirm this rarely reported trend.
Biden should take advantage of his moment in history to boldly reform American refugee policy. He could, at the stroke of a pen, redefine how many refugees are allowed into the United States by taking advantage of the distinction our laws make between those granted temporary protection and those awarded permanent residency.
The latter group is the traditional way “refugees” are categorized: given green cards and a pathway to naturalized citizenship. Naturalization (not immigration) is a congressional authority, according to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. However, foreign policy and the granting of temporary welcome to foreign refugees is entirely in the President’s power. He should use that power now.
A green card and the right to US citizenship allows access to expensive welfare benefits that temporary protection status does not.
That’s why redefining refugees as exclusively temporary noncitizens would be a game changer. Anyone who worries that untold millions of temporary refugees would overwhelm the nation should appreciate that some 200 million foreigners visited America annually as business, education and tourism travelers before Covid-19.
Context for those millions is the paltry 200,000 total refugees admitted to the United States from Europe during Hitler’s rule in Germany, amounting to fewer than 20,000 per year. This year, a hundred times more people are being apprehended at America’s southwest border, many claiming asylum from Honduras.
At the same time, Honduras is receiving “$164.7 million per year” in foreign aid from the United States, according to the State Department. This is wrong. Hondurans should be given refuge, or their government should be given aid, but not both.
Real tyranny is alive and well, and we shouldn’t confuse it with poverty. The communist government in Beijing is creating a state of surveillance, replete with reeducation camps. Nearly 7 million Venezuelans have fled President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship and are hiding in neighboring countries. Twelve million or more Ukrainians have been displaced by the Russian invasion. It’s not as if genuine refugees are hard to find.
Why not call a dictatorship a dictatorship? The President should put the world on notice by ordering the State Department to designate “oppressive” nations – and only their people could qualify for asylum. Such a bold move would resolve the border crisis and align with Biden’s stated values. Too simple? No, the world needs moral clarity more than ever.