After many early stumbles, the Biden Administration seems finally to have found its footing in dealing with immigration. To be honest, it still loses its way now and then—usually when it follows, preserves or defends some remnant of former President Trump’s atrocious immigration policies. But, lately, it appears to be headed in the right direction. The question is whether the Biden administration can stay on course over the next year against what is likely to be a stiff political wind blowing in from the right—just in time for the 2022 midterm elections.
It’s no secret that Republicans in Congress have decided that their best shot at regaining control is to portray Democrats as pushing “open borders,” the same framing that helped elect Trump The way the GOP sees the immigration issue—which is to say oversimplified, inaccurate and often through racist-colored glasses—Democrats are solely responsible for a chaotic border crisis where thousands of desperate migrants, most of them from Central America, have lined up at the U.S.-Mexico border to plead for refugee status.
As someone who has covered the immigration debate for 30 years and lobbed plenty of rhetorical hand grenades at both parties, trust me when I say: That’s bullshit. These would-be refugees are all headed somewhere, to connect with some cousin, brother, or aunt who is already in the United States working their tail off doing jobs that Americans won’t do. The employers of those workers are allowed to go on their merry way because they have people who defend and empower them. Those people are called Republicans.
The problem is, Democrats are afraid to say that whenever they’re attacked by the GOP for allegedly being soft on illegal immigration. They’re too busy running scared. Democrats don’t want to be branded the “open border party” or the “amnesty party.” They’re terrified of being tagged as soft on illegal immigration, just like they were accused of being weak on national defense during the 1970s and soft on crime during the 1980s. Afraid of losing the votes of working-class whites who oppose higher levels of immigration, Democrats tend to overcompensate and lurch to the right by attempting to out-do the restrictionists. See: Former President Bill Clinton, the father of the modern anti-immigrant movement. That may be smart politics, but it makes immigration supporters even more cynical and less eager to vote for a Democratic Party that betrays them.
Now, Biden is getting Democrats off the defensive and giving them something concrete to brag about. While still holding the line against illegal immigration—including, sometimes, in Trumpian ways that should make liberals nervous—the Biden administration appears to be reversing most (but not all) of the executive measures put in place by the Trump administration to complicate and make more difficult the process of coming to the United States. The Biden approach seems to be to make it easier, quicker and cheaper for immigrants to come legally—while still trying to deter those who come illegally.
Last week, the White House announced that it was expanding the Central American Minors program so that many more young migrants from Central America could be let into the country legally. This is in line with the administration’s stated objective to widen the “legal pathways” for immigration. The changes could dramatically increase the number of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran children who are eligible to join their families in the U.S., from several hundred to tens of thousands.
Also, Attorney General Merrick Garland has begun rolling back some of the legal decisions made by the Trump administration. Those policies had stacked the deck against would-be refugees by narrowing access to the U.S. asylum system Garland’s decisions vacated Trump-era rulings that had limited asylum eligibility for migrants fleeing gangs or gender-based attacks. The Trump administration considered those kinds of assaults “private” forms of violence that were not linked to membership in a persecuted social group.
Even Kamala Harris—who nearly caused an international incident by going all the way to Guatemala to tell Guatemalans (as well as people from Honduras and El Salvador) to stay put. If you try to seek safe haven in the United States, “you will be turned back,” said Harris. Now the vice president is putting forth a kinder and gentler face. Last week, she voiced support for Dreamers, and called on Congress to create a pathway to U.S. citizenship for the nearly 700,000 recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Bravo. I’m not used to praising the Biden administration—or Democrats in general—for doing the right thing on immigration. I think that, in many ways, they’re the real villains in this debate. They too often pretend to have the back of Latinos when it comes to immigration, but that’s exactly where they stick the knife.
But let’s give credit where it is due. The Biden immigration reforms all suggest that the White House is back in the hands of grownups who know how to control immigration without demonizing the immigrants themselves.
At least I hope that’s what we’re seeing. With this issue, you can’t be sure. Like most Americans who want an immigration policy based on compassion and common sense, I’m used to being disappointed—and sometimes disgusted—by what we’re offered. We’ve been snookered too many times before.
Granted, the Biden approach to immigration isn’t perfect. And, in fact, in the early days of the administration, the imperfections were laid bare.
Team Biden kept unaccompanied minors in oversized glass holding cells which resembled the “kids in cages” technique that was so readily utilized by the Trump administration. It also denied the media, and a delegation of Republican Senators, access to the detainees, claiming that it was protecting the inmates’ privacy when it was really trying to protect itself from bad press.
President Biden himself publicly vouched for President Trump’s absurdly low annual cap of 15,000 refugees as just about right. Later, he reversed course under pressure from progressives in his own party—including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY—and increased the figure to 62,500. Or exactly half of the 125,000 that Biden had promised on the campaign trail.
The Biden Justice Department has repeatedly gone to court to defend a punitive immigration rule from the Trump administration that severely limits legal avenues for relief for undocumented immigrants fighting deportation. That could suggest that Biden plans to follow in the footprints of his old boss, President Barack Obama, who deported record numbers of immigrants.
And, despite the fact that Biden has previously pledged not to build “another foot of wall,” The Washington Times reported in April that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has told colleagues that some construction might resume along the border wall to fill “gaps” left behind by Trump. The administration has not disputed the accuracy of the story.
Don’t expect Biden, or any member of his administration, to apologize for mistakes or excesses. Backing away from any kind of border enforcement would only play into the hands of Republicans who want to paint the administration—and all Democrats—as soft on illegal immigration. It would also send the wrong message to those Biden voters in the industrial Rust Belt states who are fairly conservative on the immigrant issue, and want more barriers and other enforcement measures on the border—not fewer of them.
This is where Biden finds himself on immigration. He paddles to the right one day, and to the left the next. As he makes his way through the choppy waters of a debate that has drowned many a political career, searching for that mythical island that may or may not exist: the middle.