biden trump US immigration policy

US Immigration Policy: The Past, Present & Future

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In November – after a grueling wait while remaining mail-in ballots were counted – Joe Biden was declared President-elect of the US, signaling the start of a new administration in America and the end of Trump’s presidency.

Political commentators spoke of how Biden’s win induced a collective sigh of relief across the globe, with Trump’s controversial, reactionary approach to US politics soon being made to draw to an end. And yet, while celebrations following Trump’s defeat are understandable given the very real dangers he has posed to minority groups, it is imperative that we do not glorify Joe Biden or the Democrat administration as a whole.

Instead, we must recognise that both Biden’s proposed policies and his track record come with their own issues and that sweeping reforms – not empty, performative actions – are necessary. Previous Democrat administrations, particularly the Obama/Biden era, are often romanticised among the liberal commentariat as largely progressive forces for good. Yet these depictions fail to acknowledge the many deeply damaging policies and processes brought into effect under these governments.

obama/biden administration US immigration policy legacy
The Obama/Biden administration’s murky legacy is often glossed over. [Image: NY Times]

In his role as Vice President, Joe Biden championed and contributed to the implementation of many of President Obama’s policies, including the less palatable that are often glossed over; specifically those impacting immigration. The Obama/Biden administration deported more people than under any other US president, with immigration removals standing at over 400,000 people per year between fiscal 2012 and 2014.  

Sweeping reforms – not empty, performative actions – are necessary.

When it comes to US immigration policy in particular, both Trump and Biden have demonstrated critical negligence and disregard towards migrants’ rights. It is important that we look at both Biden’s immigration pledges and his past record to consider how the US’ immigration system may shift under the Biden/Harris administration. 

Trump’s Immigration Dystopia

Under the Trump administration, immigration was weaponised from the get-go. Throughout Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, his incessant scapegoating of migrants was at the forefront of every speech and rally, with promises to build a wall along the border of Mexico and the US garnering the support of far-right white supremacists.

Regrettably, this divisive rhetoric did not cease throughout his first-term as President. Over four years, Trump implemented a number of archaic, inhumane immigration policies which have come at the expense of some of the most vulnerable and have inevitably incited hatred and violence towards minorities. 

In 2017, he signed an executive order to ban those from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US – this came to be known across the mainstream media as Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’. Steeped in Islamophobia, Trump attempted to disguise this ban as a national security measure. In reality, Muslims became heavily demonised once again, with their discrimination now legitimised under US policy. 

trump's US immigration policy
Trump’s immigration policies were designed to scapegoat and restrict migrants. [Image: Shutterstock]

And with regards to asylum seekers, Trump’s contempt has hardly been veiled. Despite nearly 4,400 people seeking asylum in the US between 2007-2017 as a result of anti-LGBTQ+ persecution, Trump targeted these communities by proposing an overhaul of the rules that govern the intake of asylum-seekers at U.S. borders and ports of entry. Human Rights Watch described how these amendments seemed designed to explicitly target three groups in particular: Central Americans fleeing gang violence; women fleeing domestic abuse; and LGBTQ+ people. 

Obama/Biden Immigration Legacy and Future Proposals 

Biden on the other hand – while moving to reverse many of Trump’s callous immigration policies – is no stranger to having a controversial legacy on immigration. Throughout his presidential campaign, Biden was repeatedly asked whether he regretted his record regarding immigration while serving as Vice President.

One moderator put the question to him directly: ‘You served as vice president in an administration that deported 3 million people – the most ever in US history. Did you do anything to prevent those deportations?’ to which Biden claimed his own power was limited and that Obama ‘did the best thing that was able to be done’. 

He failed to disavow Obama’s immigration policies and has falsely claimed that, under the Obama/Biden administration, migrants were not ‘locked in cages’ or separated from their family members. This is untrue.

Despite Biden creating a task force to reunite migrant families who were separated at the border by Trump’s 2018 ‘zero tolerance’ strategy, it was the Obama/Biden administration which sowed the seed for this inhumane practice in the first place. When considering how immigration policy may evolve under the forthcoming Biden/Harris administration, it is important that we do not bury Biden’s record on this issue. 

Immigrant children watch television in a holding cell where they are being processed and held at the CBP Nogales Placement Center in Arizona, on June 18, 2014. [Ross D. Franklin/Reuters]
Children were held at the CBP Nogales Placement Center in Arizona on June 18, 2014 during Obama’s presidency. [Image: Ross D. Franklin/Al Jazeera]

Since being in office, Biden has begun working to reverse many of Trump’s immigration policies. However, whether these are enough to make real, substantive change is worth interrogating. For example, within his presidential campaign, Biden vowed to ‘enforce our laws without targeting communities, violating due process, or tearing apart families’ yet this begs the question: how can Biden enforce US immigration policy without targeting communities when many of these laws were designed to disproportionately impact specific races and ethnicities

Within the first 100 days of a Biden/Harris administration, Biden has promised to ensure that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel are ‘held accountable for inhumane treatment’, while increasing resources for training. Yet these rhetorical commitments suggest that rather than abolish ICE – an objective activists and immigration campaigners have rallied behind for some time – he simply wishes to reform it.

As with the argument for defunding the police, it is impossible to reform an institution whose processes are rooted in racism. The acts of disproportionately segregating, detaining and criminalising people of colour is steeped in racial inequality – ICE is founded on these principles. 

How can Biden enforce US immigration policy without targeting communities, when these laws were designed to disproportionately impact specific races and ethnicities? 

Finally, while the Biden/Harris administration will resume a program which allows people under 18 to apply to join their relatives in the US instead of attempting to cross illegally, Biden has made clear that he has no intention of decriminalising border crossings. While other Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election had argued in favour of decriminalisation – such as Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro – this is something Biden has not committed to. Maintaining the criminalisation of border crossings has the adverse effect of perpetuating both people smuggling and trafficking. 

Moving Forward: Radical Change Necessary

While Biden is already making vast improvements to the US immigration system – reversing many of Trump’s deeply harmful processes – it seems unlikely that such changes will go far enough. Biden’s move to streamline the naturalisation process, to rescind Trump’s travel and refugee bans, and to end prolonged detention are indeed promising and are right to be praised. However his proposals fall short of the radical changes necessary to truly transform US immigration policy.

Written by
Holly Barrow