Millions left in limbo as popular immigration reforms stall


Afghan refugee mothers and children play in a park in Liberty Village on Joint Base McGuire-Dix- Lakehurst in Trenton, N.J., Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. (Barbara Davidson/Pool via AP)

(NewsNation) — With the announcement of Congress’ trillion-dollar spending bill, it is likely the last opportunity for significant immigration reform this year has passed.

This is despite a widespread opinion of voters across the political spectrum that our immigration system is in crisis and long overdue for an overhaul. 

Perhaps more significantly, the lives of millions already in the U.S., as well as hundreds of thousands more potential outside workers, are left on hold.

One of those waiting is Zuhra, who evacuated Afghanistan with her 5-year-old daughter as Kabul fell to the Taliban a little more than a year ago. (NewsNation is withholding her last name due to safety concerns for her husband, parents and other family members still in Afghanistan.)

She now works in Houston helping others from her country file for permanent status.

Each time legislation guaranteeing permanent residency is pushed off, Zuhra said her looming fear of being sent back to Afghanistan grows, as does the amount of time it will take to reunite families.

Refugees tell her, “This isn’t fair. Please do something for us,” Zuhra said. “I’m also a new refugee. I am not able to do anything for you.”

Zuhra and her 5-year-old daughter Hareer left Afghanistan in the final days of the evacuation. Her husband and other family members remain. Courtesy of Zuhra.

Tens of thousands of Afghans hoped and pressed for Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act before new legislators take their seats in 2023. 

They were joined by more than a million DREAMERS — undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children — who pushed for protection measures after a federal court ruled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program unlawful in October.

Another reform bill would have brought more guest workers into the country as the agriculture industry struggles to fill job openings.

Instead, the debate over border security took over in recent weeks, and a last-minute bipartisan reform effort ran out of time

“Unless you’re talking seriously about securing the border, you’re not going to have serious talks about immigration reform,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, said on NewsNation’s “CUOMO” this week. “We have to stop the insanity that is going on at the border. This is wrong.”

These three proposals have widespread support among voters, with 66% saying the U.S. should take in Afghans and 58% saying the DACA program should be continued. Meanwhile, the Farm Worker Modernization Bill boasted widespread support from farmers and immigration advocates alike. 

The groups seeking to find common ground say these efforts may now have to rely on the political will of a new legislature, one in which power has shifted in the House to Republicans, making compromise more challenging. 

An estimated 80,000 Afghans were evacuated to the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security. And as many as 125,000 additional people could be given work visas under the Farm Worker Modernization Act.

Others hope President Joe Biden will take up these issues through executive action in 2023, especially in light of worker shortages. 

“The thing that’s underpinning inflation still — that’s driving inflation still — is this tight labor market,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Axios. “Immigration is a lever. … That’s a workforce that we need.”

For those waiting for a permanent solution, the stakes may be even higher, Zuhra said. 

She hears her own desperation in the voices of the refugees she works with, who are going into another year separated from family: “They’re crying that, ‘I don’t want to think (that is) the last time — I want that I can see one more time my son or my daughter or my husband or wife.”

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