Demonstrators are seen outside the DNC before a march to the RNC to call on the Senate to pass the American Dream and Promise Act, which provides a path to citizenship to those with temporary protected status on March 24, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
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Prepare for a new era of debate over immigration. Should the Democratic-controlled Congress  legalize undocumented workers and revamp the visa system? How will the Biden administration address root causes of Central American migration while meeting U.S. obligations to fairly consider asylum claims? 

Organizations pushing to dramatically reduce immigration are already in the thick of it all. 

Some of these immigration-restriction groups have suffered image problems after research revealed a key founder’s racist anxiety over immigration from Latin America and other uncomfortable ties. Today, these groups often disseminate false claims arguing that too many immigrants are unskilled to contribute to the economy and that immigration is responsible for decades of decline in overall American wage rates. 

During the Trump years, the Center for Public Integrity dissected contrived and false claims blaming immigrants for wage decline. 

Nevertheless, groups such as NumbersUSA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center Immigration Studies have great reach, according to Muzaffar Chishti, a policy expert at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank. For years, the groups have torpedoed proposals to legalize undocumented workers and Dreamers, who came here as children. 

“They jammed the fax machines at Congress,” Chisti said, to pressure Republican lawmakers to turn against  then-President George W. Bush, who supported legalization.

Despite hardening anti-legalization among the GOP,  polling over the years has found strong majorities support a conditional path to legalization. Labor unions and U.S. business groups have long lobbied for such a policy. Chishti points out that only 5,000 immigrant visas are available a year to fill so-called lower-skilled but essential jobs that could include farm work or home elder care.

“The laws of supply and demand are working magically,” Chishti said, “except that illegal channels are used to meet them.” Employers have paid little price for hiring the undocumented. 

The pandemic has heightened Americans’ awareness that immigrants fill many essential jobs, Chishti said. But the Federation for American Immigration Reform is already mobilizing followers to oppose legalization efforts. FAIR officials did not respond to requests for comment.   

The group has called out GOP lawmakers in the House of Representatives who voted with Democrats to pass two bills that would legalize Dreamers and farmworkers — if the Senate were to approve the legislation, too. 

The Center for Immigration Studies, whose staff was close to anti-immigrant Trump adviser Stephen Miller, is on the case, too. A 2020 report linked immigrant workers to overcrowded housing, where the coronavirus can spread easily. 

Mark Krikorian, the group’s executive director, said that any amnesty for Dreamers or others should be offset by reductions in other immigrant visas. If Dreamers are allowed to legalize, he thinks legislation should also prohibit them from ever sponsoring their undocumented parents for legal status in the future. 

Another report the group issued recently acknowledges that undocumented workers have poured billions of dollars into Social Security and Medicare funds to which they have no access. If they’re legalized, the article warns, the immigrants could be allowed to eventually tap into funds they’ve helped prop up.

The author of that piece, Center for Immigration Studies resident scholar Jason Richwine, said in an email that the report’s purpose was “to show that amnesty would turn that positive fiscal effect into a large negative effect.” 

Chishti said Richwine’s piece reminded him of an immigration official’s remark from decades ago: “Our immigration policy is half open door, half open wallet.” 

In other words, Chishti said: “We don’t keep them out completely. But we don’t pay them completely, either.” 


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