August 2023

Marshall Fitz
9 min readSep 1, 2023

August is typically a slow policy month in Washington, DC, due to Congress’s summer recess. But while the Members are out of sight, their collective failures remain top of mind and on full display. We’ve watched countless state and local officials point to critical labor shortages that are holding their economies back. And we’ve seen historic numbers of people on the move throughout the hemisphere who would love the chance to help alleviate those shortages. But rather than lean in to the opportunity to solve two problems, Congress — and a number of Republican governors — prefer to treat striving migrants as political pawns in a callous, counterproductive game of partisan politics.

(Welcome?) Back to School

Parents and kids across the country traditionally begin making back-to-school preparations every August. Every year our kids return to the classroom, we are presented with a fresh chance to renew our commitment to community and the promise of equal opportunity for all. Despite society’s many failures to deliver on that aspirational promise, every child in the U.S. is entitled to a free, quality education, regardless of race, religion, or immigration status. However, the reality is that millions of kids are missing weeks of school as attendance tanks across the U.S. and among the reasons is that many are “generally feeling unwelcome at school.”

Feeling unwelcome has always been a challenge for new immigrant students. Those feelings are exacerbated by the increasingly vitriolic political fights over whether new migrants present an opportunity or burden to their community. Reagan Ricker, a high school student in Washington state, goes so far as to observe that “our student absenteeism problem is an immigration policy problem.” She argues that the trickle-down effects of our broken asylum and toxic political systems have invaded our education system by creating unwelcoming environs and some of our students are responding by not showing up.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Taking deliberate steps to make a community welcoming for all students provides a win-win solution to this challenge. Cities like Dallas, which became the first Certified Welcoming City in Texas in 2019, show the way as they are reaping significant, measurable benefits by committing to build shared prosperity and welcome newcomers.

Of course, the abhorrent practice of busing migrants to different “blue cities” without any notice or coordination — started by Texas Gov. Abbot but since adopted by other states and localities — has increased the challenge of successfully welcoming and integrating children into school systems, in addition to raising political tensions. But, the deliberately chaotic relocation of migrants to score political points can be neutralized with practical steps adopted at the local, state, and federal levels, as outlined in a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

To live up to their promise as a great equalizer in American society, public schools — and their communities — must redouble efforts to be welcoming and inclusive. That is not enough, of course, to transform our public schools into centers of educational excellence and unlock the American promise of a high-quality education for everyone, as our colleagues at XQ strive for every day. But it is a necessary precondition to realize this month’s annual “Welcome Back to School” slogan.

Undermining Our Competitive Labor and Demographic Advantage

The U.S. economy is facing a crippling worker shortage. We need workers at every skill level and in nearly every sector. As two labor experts compellingly argued in a recent piece, “American policymakers need to wake up to a new reality: The country is running out of workers, and immigration must be part of the solution.” Congress could alter this shortage immediately by opening up new legal channels; instead, it remains paralyzed by self-defeating politics.

As real as the problem is right now for agriculture, food service and hospitality, schools, and technology industries in the U.S., it is poised to get significantly worse for two reasons: declining fertility rates and an aging society. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the birth rate has been sliding for years, and it’s about to translate into a shrinking labor force. By 2040, …America could have more than six million fewer working-age people than in 2022.” This analysis builds off a new paper for the National Foundation for American Policy, which argues that, “new international migrants are the only potential source of growth in the U.S. working-age population over the remainder of the next two decades.”

Until recently we have been able to lean on America’s reputation as the land of opportunity to make it a top destination for workers striving for a better life. But our broken, self-limiting immigration system is undermining our ability to continue attracting workers. Arbitrary annual caps, inflexible categories and rules, and limited pathways to permanent residence have made it increasingly challenging, if not impossible, for people who want to add their fuel to America’s economic engine.

Photo by Jenna Miller | Cronkite News

The lack of progress on this issue is causing serious frustration among business leaders and politicians from both parties across the country. “More than 120 business leaders … signed onto a letter from American Business Immigration Coalition Action asking President Joe Biden and his administration to expand work permits for immigrants.” Earlier this year, Republican Governors Cox (UT) and Holcomb (IN) called on President Biden to use “his parole authority to allow migrants to get work authorization, partly in collaboration with the states where they would reside.” Governor Pritzker (D-IL) and Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson likewise have called on DHS to grant parole to asylum seekers, enabling them to begin working more quickly in shortage industries throughout the state. And the entire Massachusetts delegation urged the Biden-Harris Administration to streamline work authorizations for new arrivals.

Other countries have seen the opening left by U.S. inaction and have increased their attempts to compete for these workers. For example, Canada is targeting and hiring “highly skilled employees from all over the world — including from the United States.”Canada’s relatively easier and faster visa process has made it a far preferable alternative for many people seeking the opportunity to share their talents.

Our broken immigration system is not only stymieing economic growth at home, but also incentivizing people to take their talents elsewhere. Immigration has always provided the United States with a competitive advantage, but it’s one that could slip away right when we need it most if Congress continues to flail.

Historic Levels of Migration in the Americas

A recurrent focus of this monthly update is the historic numbers of people on the move across the planet and in the Western Hemisphere specifically. Over the last 3 years, the directionality of migration patterns has dramatically changed for one very specific reason: as we’ve described previously, the treacherous, once virtually impassable Darién Gap dividing Colombia and Panama has now been thoroughly breached by thousands of desperate people who are traveling on foot from South America northward.

The number of people transiting through the Darién has grown exponentially in response to emergent political, economic, and humanitarian crises. Last year, a record 248,000 people traversed the isthmus separating the two continents; in just the first 7 months of this year that record was broken, and as of August 28, the total number of migrants passing through this year was tallied at 320,098. That so many families — some 10% of those crossing are 5 years old or younger — are undertaking this brutal journey points to a tragic level of desperation. Unfortunately, the governments of Panama and Costa Rica have separately warned that rather than proactive steps to manage this pressure in a humane way, they may pursue extreme measures likely to increase human despair, including closing land borders.

Rather than reacting with restrictive, isolationist policies, the unprecedented increase in human mobility highlights the urgency of developing and expanding collaborative hemispheric solutions. Hardening borders will not enhance the safety of people on the move and will only fuel the smuggling and predatory economy that is thriving in the Darién Gap. Several recent innovative initiatives point the region in a constructive direction. For example, as we’ve described previously, the U.S. parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans has shown tremendous promise (more on this program in the next section). Hundreds of thousands of people from those countries have been admitted and millions of Americans are seeking to sponsor them through the program.

Migrants from Haiti board a boat headed to Panama in Necocli, Colombia, in 2021. Raul Arboleda / AFP — Getty Images file

Another effort to help channel irregular migration into a more humane and orderly process was the creation of regional processing centers, now called Safe Mobility Offices (SMOs). The SMOs will enable people to seek refugee status or other legal pathways from different countries (as of now, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala) without having to make the dangerous journey north. While the concept behind these Offices and their operationalization is still recent and imperfect, the goal of expanding access to pathways closer to home is a welcome development.

Earlier this month, with the “full support” of the Biden-Harris Administration, the Government of Mexico announced plans to offer “new refugee and labor options for the most vulnerable people in Mexico.” Concretely, the Government of Mexico will establish an International Multipurpose Center in Tapachula, Chiapas, offering referrals, services, and pathways to people in need of protection who want to stay in Mexico. In addition, Mexico and the U.S. are exploring the creation of a new U.S. refugee processing program through a center in southern Mexico for certain Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans currently in Mexico.

Managing migration and addressing the underlying drivers across the hemisphere is obviously a deeply complex, multi-faceted challenge. And we welcome the creativity and variety of new approaches that are being developed. But the scale of the challenge is rapidly expanding and requires far greater investment in new strategies and financial supports for cities and regions hosting large numbers of migrants. The alternative is chaos, increased human suffering, and growing support for reactionary demagogues preaching nativism and isolationism.

Another Incoherent and Counterproductive Texas-Led Lawsuit

Building on the successful Uniting for Ukrainian (U4U) parole program, which has welcomed 147,000 Ukrainian nationals and their immediate family members, the Biden-Harris Administration launched a similar program in January for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (CHNV). As with U4U, the CHNV program authorizes certain people from those countries who have been sponsored by an American to enter the country for 2 years with work authorization. And as with U4U, the CHNV program has been incredibly popular and effective. More than 200,000individuals have been paroled under the program already with more than 2 million Americans waiting in the backlog to sponsor new parole applicants.

Unfortunately, and unlike U4U, the CHNV program faces a legal challenge from 21 Republican-led states who have argued that the program unlawfully exceeds the federal government’s “statutory parole authority” and harms the states financially. The trial on the lawsuit took place in late August and presented the starkest of contrasts.

Texas asked the court not only to strike the program, but to also immediately terminate the grant of parole and work authorization for the hundreds of thousands of people already admitted. By contrast, New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, and 11 other states and the District of Columbia submitted an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief asking the court to deny any requests to block the program. In addition, seven U.S. citizens were permitted to intervene in the case, powerfully arguing that they — and other American sponsors — would be severely harmed if the program is terminated.

The states seeking to terminate the parole program have consistently complained that the border is being overrun by undocumented migrants. But here they are trying to block a program that channels irregular migration into a lawful, orderly pathway. Moreover, as The Legal Information Network for Ukraineargued in another amicus brief, the U4U program is “materially indistinguishable” from the CHNV program, begging the question of why the states did not challenge it as well.

It appears that the real objection of these state leaders is less about how migrants are arriving than about where those migrants are from.

Following the thrilling announcement from earlier this year that our dear friend Julie Chávez Rodríguez, granddaughter of labor icon César Chávez, will manage President Biden’s reelection campaign comes the wonderful news that our equally dear friend and longtime colleague Sergio Gonzales, “grandson of civil rights activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales,” will join the Biden-Harris reelection campaign. Sergio will be counseling Vice President “Harris on campaign strategy and traveling with her on the campaign trail beginning in early fall.” The appointment of these leaders to critically important positions in the campaign signals how central issues of civil, immigrant, and labor rights will be in the reelection campaign.

In solidarity,

Marshall Fitz

Managing Director of Immigration

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Marshall Fitz

Managing Director of Immigration at the Emerson Collective. Advocate for humanity, sports junky, 1/2-assed Buddhist, proud papa and spouse. Views obv my own.