By Barbara Goldberg Goldman
Special to WJW
Six hundred and eleven is a number that should be emblazoned in every parent’s mind. It is a number that represents a ruinous stain on America’s history. Yet, it is a number that probably is far smaller than what it actually represents, namely children, as young as infants and toddlers being ripped out of their parents’ arms and put in cages. Such directives emanated from the Trump White House during a heartless four-year period, beginning almost immediately after the 45th president of the United States took his oath of office.
Immigration restriction is not new to our nation. As far back as America winning its independence from the British, immigration was regulated like a pendulum, swinging back and forth depending upon the tenor of the electorate. In the past, more compassionate and common-sense approaches have replaced restrictive, and often cold and heartless, isolationist policies. Such is the case today with the Biden administration renewing hope and restoring America’s soul. Yet, it will not be an easy task.
As our nation’s populace evolved and became more diverse, so too did our immigration policies better reflect the mood and views toward immigration. In the 1900s America saw a surge in people coming to our shores seeking refuge and opportunities, mostly originating from European nations.
But, in 1965, a sweeping immigration reform package took hold with immigration to the United States dominated by people born in Asia and Latin America, rather than Europe. In the 1970s, it was not uncommon for private bills to be introduced and tacked onto legislation having very little to do with immigration policy yet granting relief and residence to families or individuals who were already residing in a particular member of Congress’ district.
I know because I wrote several of them while working on the Hill.
By the 1980s, sentiment began changing once again and the flow of immigration to America was being looked upon askance. Growing concern on and off the Hill gave rise to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). While it granted “legalization” to “unauthorized” immigrants who met certain conditions, it also placed financial sanctions on American employers who hired workers who were not authorized to work.
Thus came the nomenclature “illegal immigrants,” a derogatory term that denies the inherent worth of every human being.
Subsequent changes to IRCA further tried to address unauthorized immigration, and then came 9/11, giving rise to overt concerns over terrorism stemming from beyond our borders. Residence and citizenship eligibility stiffened, border controls tightened, and enforcement of laws on hiring immigrants became more stringent.
And now, President Biden, upon signing executive orders reversing much of more than 400 immigration-related executive actions of the previous administration, and sending to the Hill an immigration reform package, affirmed that America is changing course once more. His bill provides for family reunification, paths to citizenship, professional and safe border controls, expansion of transnational anti-gang task forces, crackdowns on criminal organizations, improvement of immigration courts, support for asylum seekers, deployment of technology and enhancements in screening at every land, air and sea port of entry. As he put it, “we’re going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers and fathers at the border, and with no plan, none whatsoever, to reunify the children who are still in custody and their parents.”
By no means do the signed executive orders or the ambitious but necessary immigration reform package that we have seen from the Biden White House grant a free-for-all immigration policy. On the contrary, it is a balanced, humane and commonsense approach. We know there are no overnight fixes. But with wise, methodical, intelligent and compassionate strategies and approaches, we can achieve a safe, strong and humane immigration system resulting in a prosperous, culturally rich and diverse nation. Therefore, it is essential that we support and urge Congress to quickly pass President Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.
So many of us are in this country because our ancestors came here seeking refuge and better living conditions. We must keep this in mind every time we bear witness to discrimination and inhumane treatment. Parents must imagine how they would feel if anyone even attempted to rip their own children from their arms, not knowing if they would be reunited ever again. It’s undeniably one of the worst nightmares a mother and father could have. Yet, this is precisely what happened right here in America for the past four years. We must all do everything in our power to reverse such vicious policies. Never again means just that.
Barbara Goldberg Goldman is vice chair and a founding board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. She has worked on immigration issues since working for former Rep. Barbara C. Jordan.