Thousands of immigrants seeking safety in the United States keep getting expelled at the US-Mexico border, which means some of them are living in overcrowded shelters and shantytowns and makeshift encampments all over the Mexican side of the border. The expulsions have been enabled largely by Title 42, the rule that allows border officials to turn away asylum seekers on public health grounds.
Our country’s vast and complex immigration system is incontrovertibly broken: Millions of residents live in the shadows without status and yet keep contributing to our economy — many of them as essential workers. Then there’s the trauma that immigrant parents and their children continue to suffer after being separated at the border. The federal government reportedly stopped negotiating a potential monetary settlement with the families, which would have helped repair the harm it so cruelly inflicted on them.
Does that sound like a flashback to Trump’s America circa 2018? Yes, but it’s also the status quo of immigration policy under President Biden. And it stands as one of the most neglected news stories of 2021.
Ed O’Keefe, senior White House and political correspondent for CBS News, said as much on “Face The Nation” on Sunday. “The most underreported and under-discussed issue in this town is immigration,” O’Keefe said. “There’s been a real failure to act for too long and it continued this year. Certainly plenty of urgent priorities that had to be addressed, whether it’s the economic recovery, the ongoing fight with the pandemic. . . . But one of the things that just undergirds everything about this country — the economy, job creation, the fight over illegal drugs, schooling, and national identity and security is this issue that for too long, this entire century, presidents have said they would try to tackle and they just have not.”
THE MOST UNDERREPORTED STORY OF 2021? Immigration, this reporter believes. And it could spell more political trouble for @POTUS Biden in 2022: “This is an issue he seems allergic to discussing when he’s asked about it or confronted with it.” pic.twitter.com/YCpmn32CTu— Ed O'Keefe (@edokeefe) December 27, 2021
O’Keefe is right. He was referring in particular to Biden’s lack of leadership around fixing immigration, an issue that’s arising as a huge potential problem for the Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections. If Democrats “expect to be able to turn out the kinds of people that they need to win congressional elections and governors elections in the West, especially, they have to show serious commitment to having tried,” O’Keefe said.
And that’s exactly the issue: How hard are Democrats trying to fix the harmful policies of the previous administration? In 11 months of his administration, Biden has been timid. He has been steadfast in his refusal to rescind Title 42, which was concocted by Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller last year. There was never a public health justification for it, and there certainly isn’t one now. Biden’s attempts to fix the massive problems in our immigration system have been largely through meek provisions included in his sweeping Build Back Better legislation, the future of which remains in limbo.
Granted, 2021 was a year chock-full of urgent news stories, all competing with each other, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the virus’s variants; domestic and international vaccination efforts; economic recovery and pandemic-related federal aid; the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol and its aftermath.
Immigration did get some good coverage. There was plenty of excellent journalism and a few good news stories on the matter. For instance, the news in May that the federal government shut down two problematic detention centers — one of them in Bristol County — was welcome and overdue.
Collectively, though, there hasn’t been generalized public outrage about the Biden administration’s lack of action on immigration reform and at the border, at least not enough to move the proverbial needle. Many advocates and legal experts argue Biden could be doing more without Congress, and the president should pay attention.
In treating immigration reform as an issue too hot to handle, Biden has normalized much of the Trump status quo. Biden and the Democrats face a reckoning next year for many things that they can’t control (e.g., the pandemic and inflation). Yet immigration remains both a policy and political opportunity, and Biden may discover that just not being Trump isn’t compelling enough to carry the day with immigrant voters.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.