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Is Biden Going to Repeat Obama’s Immigration Mistakes?

The presumptive nominee has promised to reverse Trump’s xenophobic policies, but he’s failed to reckon with his own party’s failings.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last month, President Donald Trump, who has spent an uneasy year botching the U.S. response to the coronavirus, took another page out of his favorite playbook. In a late-night tweet, the leader of the free world announced he would be signing an executive order to temporarily suspend all immigration into the country. As with many of Trump’s impulsive social media utterances, it was not immediately clear that he was serious about the order, and next-day reports told the story of various government entities scrambling to determine what, if anything, the president actually wanted. Eventually it was reported that the president had indeed signed an order suspending the issuance of new green cards for 60 days, marking a new extreme in the relentless xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric that has historically been the lifeblood of his political career.

That proclamation, however, failed to stir the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, into action for almost a day after Trump’s hateful tweets. Twenty-one hours later, his campaign released a statement. “Rather than execute a swift and aggressive effort to ramp up testing,” it said, “Donald Trump is tweeting incendiary rhetoric about immigrants in the hopes that he can distract everyone from the core truth: he’s moved too slowly to contain this virus, and we are all paying the price for it.”

Late as it was, Biden was nevertheless smart to point out the way Trump’s attack on immigrants was a form of deflection. Underscoring the way the president’s deadly failure to respond in an adult fashion to the pandemic was certainly a more coherent way of opposing Trump than the Biden campaign’s own strange foray into xenophobic fearmongering. But Biden’s statement missed an opportunity to condemn Trump’s hateful anti-immigrant policies in stronger terms. It also failed to advance a clear alternative at a time when one might shine brightly: Amid the coronavirus crisis, immigrants, who make up a large share of essential workers, have been hit disproportionately hard and excluded from much of the relief offered by the various coronavirus stimulus packages—another matter about which Biden had been curiously silent until this week, when he rejected a scheme to allow people to cash in Social Security benefits for pandemic relief.

Throughout the indeterminately long campaign season, most of the Democratic candidates shied away from discussing immigration in any detail. It was a remarkable feat, given who they were all competing to eventually oppose. You’d have to think back to June 2019 to recall the last moment of truly vital debate on immigration policy, a disagreement on border decriminalization between Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro. Biden’s campaign has revolved around two ideas: one, that Trump is a historical aberration, and two, that the former vice president is the rightful inheritor of Barack Obama’s legacy. Leaving aside the matter of whether either of these premises is correct, it is on the matter of immigration policy where the two ideas that power the Biden campaign’s larger rationale begin to blur. 

Biden has promised to unravel the most extreme components of Trump’s immigration policy, such as the president’s harrowing “zero-tolerance” update to immigrant detention and family separation, the paranoiac politics of border wall expansion, and the Remain in Mexico program that has put asylum-seekers fleeing persecution abroad in greater harm. Biden has also advocated for the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides, for those who have known no other home than the United States, a humane path to citizenship and the means by which they can maintain their lives and livelihoods. But Biden also plans to uphold much of the immigration enforcement regime that made Barack Obama, whose administration deported three million immigrants, the “deporter in chief.” 

Biden’s own policy platform is quick to label Trump’s immigration policies as “misguided” and define the president as one who “fundamentally misunderstands how to keep America safe because he cares more about governing through fear and division.” But its moral judgment of Trump’s nativism is strangely muted, restricted to complaints that “the real threats to our security—drug cartels and human traffickers—can more easily evade enforcement efforts because Trump has misallocated resources into bullying legitimate asylum seekers.” The rest of it reads like a Department of Homeland Security memo from the Bush or Obama era: Trump has placed “our immigration system … under greater stress” through his failure to “invest in smarter border technology that would improve our cargo screening.” Who hasn’t thought about cargo screening during the past four years of misrule?

Biden doesn’t really have a broad disavowal of Trump’s abusive border securitization strategy to offer. Rather, he charges that the president has gone about it in a way that doesn’t yield optimal outcomes. But Biden laid the groundwork for Trump by voting in favor of the restrictive 1996 immigration law that created today’s deportation machine. It’s not clear that Biden’s current ideas—a reflection of several decades’ worth of the failed and harmful policy of “prevention through deterrence,” which aimed to stop migrants from crossing the southern border by making the journey more difficult—offer better results beyond the fact that they will be more palatable for polite society to contemplate. 

It’s telling that the constellation of immigrants rights organizations that have fought the Trump administration on the front lines have been slow to embrace Biden. Those that have offered endorsements have only done so recently, and most seem to hope that once they remove Trump from office, they can try to push Biden to embrace more progressive policies

Biden needs the Latino vote to win in November, but his outreach to that community has been “dismal,” according to Lorella Praeli, who led Hillary Clinton’s effort to do so in 2016. Indeed, the presumptive nominee didn’t start racking up endorsements from any major Latino or immigrant rights’ groups until it became clear he would become the Democratic nominee. In recent weeks, the Latino Victory Fund, which endorsed Biden in February, launched the “Latinos con Biden” campaign. Its team did not respond to questions posed by The New Republic about the campaign or how it would respond to Biden’s mixed record on immigration issues.

Erika Andiola, the chief advocacy officer at Raíces Action, told The New Republic that, with Biden as the presumptive nominee, “our number one goal at this point is to defeat Donald Trump,” but she acknowledged that other candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, had much stronger pro-immigrant platforms. When he accepted Sanders’s endorsement earlier this month, Biden promised that he was listening to the concerns of progressive voters, and the two announced the creation of six task forces, including one on immigration. While Biden has agreed to adopt some aspects of Sanders’s immigration plan, such as a temporary moratorium on deportations, his own record reflects his entrenchment within a decades-long system of bipartisan immigration enforcement.

In his own presidential campaign, Biden has recycled much of the rhetoric of the Obama era, such as the shorthand “felons, not families,” which defined his deportation strategy. It meant that the administration focused detention and deportation enforcement efforts on immigrants with criminal records, notwithstanding how minor those records were, following in the vein of his bipartisan predecessors. For Andiola, hearing Biden use the same language made her “cringe.” Without an official government policy that framed millions of immigrants as felons, perhaps it would have been harder for Trump to paint them all as criminals.

And while Biden has committed to end long-term detention of immigrants and family separation, he hasn’t agreed to end immigrant detention more broadly. As Rebekah Entralgo of Freedom for Immigrants told The New Republic, the immigrant detention system “cannot be rehabilitated and reverted back [to the] Obama administration’s policies.”

The Obama administration has proven to be a touchy subject with Biden, and he’s not always responded well when confronted about Obama’s record on immigrant justice. Early in the campaign season, he told a protester who disrupted a campaign event to confront him about Obama’s deportation record that he should “vote for Trump.” During a February debate, activists from Raíces and other organizations disrupted Biden’s closing statement to confront him about the three million immigrants deported under Obama. Andiola, a DACA recipient, was one of those protesters. “It was really with the hope of getting him to really speak to that,” she said. “He hasn’t necessarily been as we wanted him to be on immigration.”

Biden has made some overtures that indicate he might be willing to take a different tack than the man with whom he served. In February—shortly before the Nevada Democratic primaries that Sanders went on to win, in large part due to his unprecedented outreach to Latino voters—he admitted that the deportations under Obama were “a big mistake. Took too long to get it right.” But Biden must do more to “bridge the trust gap” that exists between him and Latino voters, as Cristina Jiménez, the executive director of United We Dream Action, an immigrant rights network, told The Guardian.

The roots of that mistrust run deep. Democratic party operatives have long deemed immigration a hot-potato issue on which they can’t win, and the sentiments among the well-heeled pundit class often lean in a Trumpian direction. Biden’s electoral strategy has, thus far, seemed to rely on courting moderate white “swing voters” who may be spooked by policies that look too immigrant-friendly. But the Democratic base has, in recent years, moved further away from the positions of immigration hard-liners. And with immigrants overrepresented on the front lines of what’s been deemed the “essential” sector of the job force during the pandemic, there’s an opportunity for Biden to make a commitment to gaining the trust of—and fighting on behalf of—immigrant communities that Democratic rank-and-file voters might resoundingly endorse.

The trauma endured by immigrants under Trump is a strong motivator for activists in the immigrant justice community. But Obama’s record looms large in their minds as well, and the sentiment that policies cannot simply be reverted to the standard of that era is a common refrain. Immigrant rights advocates and progressive leaders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have argued that voting for Biden is a significant measure of harm reduction compared to the Trump White House, but that ultimately Biden must do more than merely clear the lowest bar. 

“Putting ‘Dreamers’ on a path to citizenship is great, but that’s a policy concession from 10 years ago,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “From a Latino perspective, I think we need a real plan to be better than what happened during his service with the Obama administration.” At some point, he might have to acknowledge, if only to himself, that the groundwork for Trump’s diabolical policies was laid by both Democrats and Republicans throughout the course of Biden’s near half-century in government.