Under Donald Trump, Americans were confronted with a near-constant onslaught of racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, especially regarding the US-Mexico border, as the same man who led chants about building a wall there won the 2016 presidential election and took control of the Oval Office for the next four years.
Vulnerable migrants were mounting “an invasion”, Trump said. The United States’ asylum system – a key commitment to its humanitarian values – was “ridiculous” and “insane”. Immigrants of color made headlines for supposedly coming here from “shithole” countries, and Mexican immigrants were called drug dealers, criminals and rapists.
After such public vitriol and humanitarian scandals, Joe Biden billed himself as the anti-Trump candidate who would restore honor and decency to the presidency, partly by building a fair and humane immigration system. One of his campaign statements noted: “Most Americans can trace their family history back to a choice – a choice to leave behind everything that was familiar in search of new opportunities and a new life. Joe Biden understands that is an irrefutable source of our strength.”
Initially, Biden delivered, with a flurry of executive actions and other first steps to undo Trump’s crackdown. But when the number of people crossing into the US from Mexico without authorization swiftly increased, his more tempered tactics became a political liability, giving Republicans fuel to spin false yet convincing – to some – narratives about an “open” and mismanaged border.
Soon, Biden’s top political operatives started pushing him to adopt a more hardline approach, while some of his immigration experts jumped ship, unable to stomach enforcing some of the same Trump-era practices they loathed.
Amid such an ideological quagmire, a reactive, confusing and often contradictory immigration agenda has emerged from this administration. And now, new policies are being admonished by advocates – and even some serving Democrats – for seemingly plagiarizing Trump’s very own playbook, without meaningful input from Congress or organizations on the ground.
So is the Biden White House simply a more politically correct Trump 2.0 on immigration at the US-Mexico border? We compare and contrast.
Much of both Trump and Biden’s border strategies are predicated on the notion that if the US government erects enough barriers and gets rid of enough incentives, people will stop trying to come.
Thus far, that theory hasn’t really panned out – the US has continued to experience record-breaking numbers of migrants and asylum seekers at its south-west boundary, despite decades of presidents pursuing this paradigm of prevention through deterrence. But, at a border that is already hyper-politicized, hyper-policed and hyper-surveilled, the last two administrations have still largely relied on the enforcement-focused infrastructures and blueprints inherited from their predecessors.
Recently, the Biden administration announced it would step up expedited removal, despite having previously rescinded Trump’s own sweeping expansion of these fast-tracked deportations. Under the practice, migrants can be swiftly repatriated without ever seeing a judge.
Biden officials have also said they will be proposing a new rule to further limit asylum eligibility, a move that has incited anger among advocates who already fought similar bans under Trump.
Expelled to danger
The most infamous through-line between Trump and Biden’s approaches to people arriving at the US-Mexico border today has been both administrations’ controversial use of a health law to deny millions of migrants and would-be asylum seekers the opportunity to ask for protection, seemingly in violation of their rights domestically and internationally.
Many people subjected to this policy – often referred to by its shorthand, Title 42 – have been stranded in or expelled to dangerous conditions in Mexico, or else swiftly returned to the unstable and sometimes life-threatening realities at home that many of them risked life and limb to escape. Others die trying to circumvent closed-off points of entry.
The Trump administration invoked Title 42 ostensibly as a public health measure during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and used it to quickly expel hundreds of thousands of people – including nearly 16,000 unaccompanied children.
Biden stopped applying the aggressive policy to unaccompanied kids but has continued to expel individuals and families. Many stuck in Mexico because of Title 42 have subsequently been murdered, raped or kidnapped, with more than 13,480 reports of violent attacks during Biden’s presidency alone.
Although the Biden administration eventually announced it was planning to end Title 42 restrictions last year, pending litigation has kept them in place for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, even as officials publicly argue against reliance on the policy, they have expanded its use multiple times, abruptly, to target Venezuelans and now also Nicaraguans, Haitians and Cubans.
Those policy changes have been accompanied by the creation of limited legal pathways, but their eligibility requirements demand a level of financial resources and international connections that the western hemisphere’s most vulnerable, forcibly displaced people likely cannot produce.
“Do not just show up at the border,” Biden warned potential migrants. “Stay where you are and apply legally from there.”
Families, still separated
Part of Trump’s enduring legacy is tied to being the president who separated families at the US-Mexico border and threw “kids in cages” for days or weeks, often with little communication or information provided to keep track of them.
In 2018, Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy shook liberals and conservatives alike as they learned about terrified children being ripped from the arms of parents who were now being prosecuted. Trump was eventually forced to end these hyper-visible family separations, but he continued to advance hardline practices that adversely affected children and families seeking help at the US’s south-west boundary, whether stranding young kids in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) custody or in hazardous Mexican border towns.
Biden, by contrast, has stopped holding migrant families in Ice detention, so far. He also resumed programs that allow some from the Caribbean and Central America to reunite with family members in the US, and a task force is still trying to reconnect families separated by the Trump administration.
Yet even as Biden tries to clean up Trump’s mess, de facto family separations continue. Unaccompanied children are exempt from Title 42, so some parents make the difficult choice to send their kids across the border alone, even when that means indefinite time apart.
The bottom line
So are Biden’s border policies turning into a copy of Trump’s?
The reality is more nuanced, with a long history of bad approaches to humanitarian migration across presidents and some positive moves toward solutions from Biden, bolstered by a different rhetoric, new alternative legal pathways and attempts at more efficient processing.
Yet parallels exist. Most notably, both administrations have done devastating harm to millions of forcibly displaced people, who came here looking for safety and opportunity only to become victims of a system that has left them stranded and vulnerable.
And with Biden now shifting to the center and immigration looming as a liability issue in the 2024 presidential election for Democrats – most of whom get sucked into the xenophobic right-wing narrative without figuring out how to defend the benefits of the American melting pot – progressives, advocates – and millions of migrants – should brace for a tough foreseeable future.
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