No one living in this country should be living in fear of their government.

(Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash)

Our nation is built on the heritage of immigration. It’s what makes our country truly exceptional. Ronald Reagan once said, “America represents something universal in the human spirit… You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman… Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.”

This is a heritage worth fighting for.

As a first-generation American, a product of “chain migration,” and board member for an NYC-based immigrant youth-led org called Atlas:DIY, immigration is an issue particularly close to my heart. When Trump passed his Muslim ban and detainees were stranded at JFK, I was there offering support as a volunteer attorney with ACLU. I’ve poured tons of time and energy into this battle and I won’t back down on protecting the civil rights of those who come to this country in search of a better life.

Currently, immigrants — both legal and undocumented — are under siege from our government in ways not seen since the 1920’s. No one living in this country should be living in fear of their government storming into their homes, schools, temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, courthouses, and hospitals. For the 11 million people are living in the US without documentation, and an estimated 8 million of those are in the American workforce. These immigrants are predominantly located in six U.S. states: California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and of course, New York.

Two hard facts, regardless of one’s politics on the issue of immigration: 1) our immigration system is broken; 2) undocumented workers account for a significant portion of American economic output, comprising 5% of the total workforce. This is a problem that must be fixed, and simply deporting all undocumented immigrants — moral implications aside — will create more problems than it solves.

Much like treating a patient, we must first stop the hemorrhaging before we treat the underlying causes in order to reform our immigration system and expand opportunity for all Americans. As such, our first priority is to halt mass deportations and then to reform our immigration system.

Below are some of my ideas and proposals to make sure that America truly remains a beacon of hope and provides opportunities for all of our people, and for those yearning to be:

  1. We need to fight mass deportation and create more pathways to citizenship.

President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program throws the future of 800,000 young undocumented immigrants into peril.

To recap, DACA is a renewable two-year status that does not provide a pathway to citizenship, but comes with a range of benefits, including permission to remain in the country and access to work permits. These work permits are a force multiplier, making it possible to obtain healthcare, pursue (and pay for) higher education, and even obtain drivers’ licenses in some states. To be eligible for DACA status, one needs to be between the ages of 16 and 35, either be enrolled in high school or have a high school degree or GED, and be free of felony or multiple misdemeanor convictions.

Congressional and Senate Democrats have been in a longstanding battle with President Trump for a “clean” DACA renewal, or at least one that includes a pathway to citizenship for those with DACA status. The failure to renew the DACA program is not an option. These are young immigrants who know no other home than the United States, and who put their trust in the U.S. government, coming out of the shadows with the promise that they would not be deported so long as they were eligible for DACA status.

But DACA covers less than 10% of all undocumented immigrants in the United States. While Democrats have spent an enormous amount of time fixated on DACA, their recent track record on non-DACA undocumented immigrants is less than stellar.

Nothing speaks louder to this claim than the fact that more deportations were carried out under President Obama than during any other presidency, and despite illegal immigration slowing down during his tenure. We can and must do better.

2. We must reform and expand avenues to legal immigration.

Increasing legal immigration is of paramount importance. The first and foremost reason is because of our own national interest — much of America’s early success was due to the phenomenal talent of immigrants, and it’s necessary for us to continue to attract the world’s best if we are to compete as a world leader in technological innovation. As a business owner, I know first-hand that established entrepreneurs aren’t as held back by lack of financial capital as they are by lack of human capital.

Reforming and expanding the H-1B visa program should be a top priority for Democrats. The H-1B visa, known as the “high-tech” visa, is granted to foreign workers in specialty occupations, primarily those of a technological nature. America educates superlative STEM graduates, but too often those without American citizenship are unable to stay once their student visas expire. To obtain a H-1B visa, a company must sponsor them for a specific job, a process both arduous and expensive. Updating this process is critical for retaining newly-groomed talent and for future American innovation.

There are many types of immigration, however, and not all should require a specific set of skills. America has long been a refuge to those from parts of the world made inhospitable by war and persecution. Today’s world is as inhospitable as ever, and we must accordingly open our doors wherever we can, to provide sanctuary. Increasing the amount of refugees we take from specified at-risk countries is a moral imperative, and regardless of Republican claims to the contrary, does not carry with it the risk of heightened terrorist attacks.

3. Families should not be dismissed as “chain migrants.”

“Chain Migration” is a term created by anti-immigration hardliners to dehumanize the practice of family reunification. And that’s exactly what the practice is — a policy that allows families to live together in the United States. The archetype of the sole migrant going alone to the United States to begin a new life before their family goes back two centuries, and if you trace almost anyone’s roots back a couple of generations, you’ll find it’s how we all got here in the first place.

Opponents claim that this “dilutes” the immigrant pool, and that the practice increases immigration from people without skills. In fact, studies have shown that immigrants who move for economic reasons are predisposed to return home once they’ve made enough money, whereas those who move for social reasons overwhelmingly tend to stay, as they’re moving into a new community. In other words: allow a person to come to America to do a specific job, and he or she might not stay. But provide them with the opportunity to put down roots, and they create a new life in America. This practice is not only moral, it is economically sound.

4. We have a moral obligation to push for the defunding of ICE.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, originated in 2003 as a bureau of the new Department of Homeland Security. Prior to its founding, immigration had always fallen under the Department of Justice. This drastic recategorization by Congress signaled, for the first time, that our lawmakers viewed immigration as an immediate threat rather than an earned right.

Just fifteen years later, ICE has crossed a red line under this president by harassing, pursuing, and terrorizing both legal and undocumented immigrants all over this country. Democrats need to act on our principles and protect immigrants from dangerous and dehumanizing federal aggression. Millions of people are depending on us to deliver strong, bold, progressive resistance in the face of this president’s racist anti-immigrant agenda. Every Democrat has an obligation to fight tooth and nail against the these dangerous, regressive, anti-immigrant policies and step one is defunding ICE.

That’s why I’m calling to defund ICE, and take away a weapon that this administration is using to target New Yorkers every day. The FBI, USMS, CIS, CBP, and TSA are more than capable of fulfilling the essential law enforcement and customs activities currently performed by ICE without subjecting large populations to constant fear.

We can keep ICE on borders and at ports, while revoking their jurisdiction to find and deport immigrants — a decision that can be left to FBI in cases referred from states. Defunding ICE and returning it to be a passport-patrol and customs-enforcement agency rather than an above-the-law deportation squad is a critical step to protecting all Americans and our civil liberties.