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On Immigration, “Building Back Better” Isn’t Enough

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When U.S. President Joe Biden took office, he made several welcome signals on the issue of immigration.

On Jan. 20, for example, he sent a bill to Congress to restore opportunities and pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; keep families together; and promote diversity, nondiscrimination, and the integration of immigrants. In the following days, he signed several executive orders to reverse the most inhumane of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including his efforts to block funding for “sanctuary cities” or those cities and jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities on policies like arrests, detentions, or deportations of undocumented immigrants. Biden also moved to end construction of the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and established a task force for the reunification of families separated there.

But there are at least three areas which policymakers, immigrant rights activists, and the media must pay attention to during the coming weeks and months.

First, while many destructive Trump-era immigration policies are well-known—the travel ban on several Muslim-majority nations and the detention of thousands of minors come immediately to mind—there were countless other maneuvers that are less visible but also caused immeasurable harm. As the New Yorker reported in February, these include “rule changes, adjustments to asylum officers’ guidelines, modifications to enforcement norms, and other measures” that were not always subject to public scrutiny or accountability. To identify all of them, the Immigration Policy Tracking Project, developed by Lucas Guttentag, has been performing what it calls “public-policy forensics,” that is, searching for new policies in “the Federal Register, legal blogs, government Web sites, Listservs for immigration attorneys, and nonprofit newsletters.” Tracking and overturning all the Trump-era directives, both well-known and hidden, is an essential task that the Biden administration must get behind.

Second, simply undoing the last four years won’t be sufficient given the long-standing flaws and racial biases in the nation’s immigration system. For example, Haitian nationals, including minors as young as 2 months old, have recently been deported either to Mexico or back to Haiti—in the midst of the pandemic. According to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, the United States has detained more Haitian families in 2020 than any other nationality. Black immigrants are more likely to have to pay higher bond amounts (if eligible for release) and be targeted for deportation. The deportation of a stateless man to Haiti demonstrates the United States and global community need to cooperate to end statelessness and address disaster and climate-induced migration, among other issues.

“Building back better,” which suggests using Obama-era policies as a foundation, will not suffice. Instead, the United States needs a wholesale reset that includes abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which uses cruel and inhumane tactics to terrorize and deport undocumented immigrants, thereby ending family separation and immigrant detention as well as demilitarizing the border.

The recent attacks on Asians, specifically Asian American women, in Atlanta and the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic are a stark reminder that the struggles of immigrant and refugee communities are rooted in historically discriminatory laws, policies, and attitudes whose legacies remain today. Rather than building back, Biden must build forward—with a perspective rooted in social inclusion, racial and economic justice, and a commitment to pluralism.

The third area of concern is the rise of “smart borders,” namely the use of sophisticated surveillance technologies for enforcement, and what those tools mean for the privacy, dignity, and freedom of both immigrants and U.S.-born citizens. Created in the aftermath of 9/11, ICE has an incomparable reach into personal data. It accesses the Department of Motor Vehicles’ information, tracks license plates, monitors social media, utilizes invasive cell phone tracking technology known as Stingray, obtains residential addresses for hundreds of millions of individuals through utility records, and even has access to millions of faces scraped from online sources.

The U.S.-Mexico border itself is surveilled through drones, facial recognition technology, automatic license plate readers, towers, heat sensors, biometric screening, and more. Such surveillance may drive undocumented migrants to seek increasingly remote and dangerous border crossings, which can result in more deaths. Meanwhile, dragnet surveillance at both the border and throughout communities in the United States raises serious concerns about privacy, liberty, and safety—and it must be challenged.

Companies such as LexisNexis and Palantir are already under pressure for their partnerships with ICE, but the true scope of the agency’s data acquisition and analysis must be unearthed and understood. For now, there is bipartisan support for technological solutions like smart borders, but it is imperative that policymakers understand and address the risks associated with the sweeping surveillance smart borders entail.

Addressing all these concerns means moving forward with a comprehensive reimagination of the U.S. immigration system instead of incremental and targeted efforts. Smaller reforms may seem more politically feasible, but they’re not likely to ever result in a truly fair and humane system. The difficulty of real and transformational change should not deter Biden from ensuring his immigration policy not only repudiates past failures but also champions human dignity.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.