A year into his presidency, Biden has kept some of Trump’s worst immigration policies in place. Why?
Heading into the November midterms, Republicans plan to use President Biden’s immigration record against him. So declared former Trump administration official and infamous xenophobe Stephen Miller in a recent CNN interview. Republican politicians nationwide have already begun running against Biden’s alleged “open borders” policies to bolster their campaigns and careers.
It all raises a question: What, exactly, are these nativists unhappy with? In many respects, Biden is doing exactly what the Stephen Millers of the world want him to do — keeping Donald Trump’s worst border policies in place.
A year into his presidency, Biden has made relatively little progress rebuilding the U.S. immigration system, particularly when one considers his soaring pro-immigrant campaign rhetoric. In fairness, Biden had his work cut out for him: Miller and other Trump officials effectively sabotaged the immigration system on their way out the door. They erected arbitrary new hurdles for immigrants, drove out qualified public servants and generally mismanaged government resources.
So it was always going to be a heavy lift to make the nation’s immigration infrastructure more functional, or at least get it sufficiently funded and staffed.
To their credit, Biden officials have reversed some of the cruel — and stupid — bureaucratic obstacles that Miller and Trump littered across the system. These often Kafkaesque changes to paperwork and eligibility requirements were intended to slow down processing of visas and work permits and entangle law-abiding immigrants in red tape. Such policies, which Trump heightened during the pandemic, are among the reasons immigration inflows have fallen by roughly two-thirds since 2017, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Also to his credit, Biden raised the ceiling on refugee admissions and evacuated many of our Afghan allies, albeit after some initial foot-dragging on both. He has backed immigration reforms that would require new legislation, which his party currently lacks the votes to pass.
If you think our immigration system should be fairer, more transparent and more aligned with U.S. economic and strategic interests, these presidential choices are worth celebrating.
But these are, mostly, obscure policy changes or unrealized proposals. When Miller et al. condemn Biden’s “immigration record,” they zero in on his decisions at the Southern border.
Which is, frankly, odd. You’d never know it from the right-wing hysteria about Biden’s supposedly “open borders,” or Biden’s own campaign promise to “end Trump’s detrimental asylum policies.” But Biden has continued Trump’s most restrictionist, inhumane and possibly illegal border policies.
In some cases Biden has even expanded them.
As evidence of Biden’s supposedly lax border policies, Republicans sometimes cite his attempt, on Day One of his presidency, to end the program informally known as “Remain in Mexico.” This Trump-created program forced asylum seekers to wait in dangerous camps in Mexico while their U.S. cases were processed; there, vulnerable immigrants have been frequent targets for rape, kidnappings, torture and murder.
If Biden had terminated the program, that would have been a good thing, from a human rights perspective (not a Republican priority, apparently). But Biden did not succeed. After a legal challenge, a federal judge ordered the program to be resurrected — and the Biden administration not only obeyed but also expanded the program’s scopeto cover even more categories of immigrants.
Worse, Biden has maintained Trump’s Title 42 order. This likely illegal order involves automatically expelling hundreds of thousands of people encountered at the border without ever allowing them to apply for asylum, in contravention of rights guaranteed under both U.S. and international law. Both Trump and Biden have cited a little-used public health provision as pretext for this policy, even though legions of public health experts have argued that it doesn’t protect public health.
Perversely, continuing this Trump policy has also given ammunition to the hard-right nativists, because it has the unintended consequence of inflating the count of U.S. border crossings. Many of those expelled immediately turn around and attempt another crossing; in fiscal 2021, 27 percent of individuals were apprehended multiple times by Border Patrol, nearly quadruple the share in 2019.
The disconnect between GOP claims about “open borders” and Biden’s actually-quite-Trumpy border policies, is enormous. Two of Biden’s own political appointees who resigned last fall lambasted his actions as “inhumane” on their way out the door; six other high-level immigration officials have recently announced they were leaving the administration, without much public explanation.
It’s unclear why Biden has maintained his predecessor’s policies. One possibility is politics — that these choices were intended to stave off right-wing attacks about lax enforcement. If that was the motivation, though, it failed. Instead, Biden has delivered the worst of all worlds: inhumane, immoral, potentially illegal policy — and bad-faith political blowback about “open borders” all the same.
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