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Florida immigrants are wary of being used as campaign fodder

President Joe Biden walks along the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Andrew Harnik/AP
President Joe Biden walks along the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Biden’s decision to close the border to asylum-seekers throws a spotlight on one of the most divisive issues ahead of the November ballot: immigration.

Amid a surge of migrants at America’s southern border, President Joe Biden announced he was taking an unusual step on June 4: While the border is overwhelmed, Biden said, migrants would be barred from entering the US and requesting asylum.

The move is garnering criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. Various immigrant groups led by the ACLU are suing his administration, while Republicans have dismissed the move as too little, too late.

“The President has lied about the existence of the border crisis, deflected blame to Congress, and now contradicts himself by issuing a feckless executive order months before Election Day," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in response to the move.

Many South Florida immigrants feel their fates are being used like political fodder ahead of the November election, one in which the immigration issue is already playing a starring role.

READ MORE: Biden’s new executive order denies asylum claims to most migrants crossing the border unlawfully

Maria is a first-generation American citizen. Her parents are immigrants from Mexico who have been waiting 23 years for their green cards. They are among the over 11 million residents of the US – some put that figure as high as 16 million – who are considered undocumented. Their status is one of the most contentious issues ahead of the November election, as Biden and his presumed challenger – former President Donald Trump – have represented radically different paths for dealing with the crisis. Democrats have generally favored a legal path to citizenship, whereas many conservative Republicans advocate for mass deportations.

“My dad came across El Rio Grande illegally at the age of 16, he swam about 300 miles. He was picked up by a truck in McAllen, Texas. He then went to Florida where he started his life,” explained Maria, who asked to be identified by her first name only, due to concerns about her parents’ lack of legal status.

In a recent interview with TIME magazine, Trump said he would deport millions of residents who lack legal status to remain in the US if he is elected to a second term.

According to a national poll conducted by the FAU Political Communication and Public Opinion Research Lab in February, 64 percent of Biden supporters say that immigration strengthens the country, whereas 60 percent of Trump supporters answered it weakens the country.

Trump’s campaign is centered on securing the borders, something he claims to have done during his administration from 2016 to 2020. On his website, he also claims to have built 450 miles of new wall.

The Biden-Harris administration, on the other hand, is seen as prioritizing more humane treatment of immigrants, allowing families to stay together and advocating for immigrants – documented or not – to more fully contribute to the country.

“Obviously we're in an election year and every party tries to make the other look bad. I feel like they bring up immigration because it is a key issue and always will be.”
Carolina, a 53-year-old immigrant from Mexico

On June 4, the Biden-Harris Administration’s immigration policy took an unexpected turn. While the White House has stated that this new approach is not permanent, this shift will bar migrants who cross the southern border unlawfully from receiving asylum.

“These actions will be in effect when high levels of encounters at the Southern Border exceed our ability to deliver timely consequences, as is the case today,” the White House said in a press statement. “They will make it easier for immigration officers to remove those without a lawful basis to remain and reduce the burden on our Border Patrol agents.”

While the divide over this lightning rod issue is not new, many immigrants interviewed for this article feel skeptical about efforts to solve the problem, and say immigration is mostly used for political gain as the upcoming election nears.

“There is a crisis right now at the border. They need to fix this crisis, but since they are political parties, they want to use this issue to gain votes. They do not actually care to fix this problem,” said Monica Garcia, a high school Spanish teacher in Port Saint Lucie. Garcia came to the United States 24 years ago from Peru and is now an American citizen.

Carolina, Maria’s mother, is a 53-year-old immigrant from Mexico who also lives in Port Saint Lucie. In her eyes, immigration issues only seem to be talked about during election cycles, and for that reason, it all sounds like empty promises.

“Obviously we're in an election year and every party tries to make the other look bad,” said Carolina. “I feel like they bring up immigration because it is a key issue and always will be.”

Jordan, 52, an immigrant from Venezuela who has lived in Florida for 18 years, explains that the situation at the border is complicated because while most immigrants come to the US to work hard, others engage in illegal activity and present a threatening image for other immigrants.

“Just like myself, most immigrants come to America to better their lives and work hard, but some have other intentions and are making us look bad,” said Jordan, who is now a high school teacher and requested that his last name not be used.

Migrants have long come across the border looking for a new life in the US, but the numbers of newcomers seeking to settle here have skyrocketed. In 2022, 2.2 million people crossed the border illegally and arrests for illegal border crossings from Mexico reached an all-time high in December 2023.

“The immigration issue as of right now is totally out of control, and I see it more as a threat to this country,” said Jordan. “Both sides are using this issue to get their supporters to vote based on their promises on how to handle this issue.”

Garcia is one among many in the South Florida immigrant community who feel that the border crisis does need attention, and that US officials should be more selective when deciding on whom to grant permission to enter.

“Most immigrants come here to work and achieve the American dream, but they need to be more careful with who passes the border,” said Garcia, the high school teacher. “They need to fix the process and invest more money in a better system to avoid those types of people from coming in,” she said, in reference to migrants with criminal or gang-related backgrounds.

“There is a crisis right now at the border. They need to fix this crisis, but since they are political parties, they want to use this issue to gain votes. They do not actually care to fix this problem.”
Monica Garcia, an immigrant from Peru who is now an American citizen

Data from the George W. Bush Institute indicates that immigrants fuel the economy, workforce, and raise GDP. Immigrants also raise the incomes of natives, said Pia Orrenious, a labor economist, from the Dallas, Texas-based institute.

Carolina noted that she and her husband have worked in jobs that most Americans born and raised in the US are not interested in taking.

“Obviously, the country is stronger with immigrants. This country needs us; it wouldn’t function the same without us,” said Carolina. “We are immigrants, we came in differently back then. There is an issue with how people are coming into the country now. The new immigrants at the border are demanding legal status that people who have been waiting years and years for don’t have yet, like green cards and documents.”

People who have been in this country for years and have been waiting patiently for their documents, especially Dreamers, should be prioritized over the people who are currently at the border, Carolina said. This term refers to the DREAM Act which stands for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act – a legislative proposal that was introduced in 2001 but failed to pass in Congress, it aimed to provide a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants who came here as children.

Various news outlets – including PBS, CNN and Reuters – are reporting that Biden will announce an executive order on Tuesday that will shield undocumented spouses of immigrants from deportation. Biden’s expected press conference will also mark the 12th anniversary of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy enacted during the Obama-Biden administration. As part of the celebration, the Biden campaign has released a bilingual video called “Here to Stay” formatted for social media, with the intent of spreading a message that Biden supports immigrants while Trump demonizes them. In a rally last weekend, Trump told potential voters that immigrants were taking jobs of Black and Hispanic Americans, and repeated lines he’s used in the past: “They’re not human beings. They’re animals,” he said at a rally in Detroit on June 15, referencing members of violent immigrant gangs.

This story was produced by MediaLab@FAU, a project of Florida Atlantic University School of Communication and Multimedia Studies, as part of a content sharing partnership with the WLRN newsroom. The reporter can be reached here.

Copyright 2024 WLRN Public Media

Mariana Rios Candamil | MediaLab@FAU