US: Are Biden’s immigration policies a break with Trump’s?

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Office in Atlanta, Georgia (Photo: Gulbenk/Wikimedia Commons)

During the presidential election campaign, Joe Biden and other Democratic Party politicians promised to “undo the damage” of the Trump regime, including pledges to overhaul Trump’s immigration policies.

During Trump’s presidency, the US/Mexico border wall, the ‘Muslim ban’, and family separation dominated the headlines and sparked protests, but many other sinister policies of Trump and the Republicans were largely ignored.

Whether it was making the legal immigration process more difficult, using public health as an excuse for denying asylum to the vulnerable or creating new departments to demonise immigrants with criminal records, everything about the Trump administration’s immigration policy was a clear attack on immigrants’ rights. However, the Biden administration’s immigration policies are also severely harming immigrants.

Biden ending the ‘remain in Mexico’ policy and terminating the wealth test for migrants are positive developments. But while these orders come as welcome news, the Biden administration has not taken a much different approach from the violent anti-immigrant policies of Obama, Trump, and numerous presidents before them.

In fact, the Biden administration has continued or strengthened policies that were at the heart of Trump’s disastrous immigration agenda.

During the 2020 elections, Biden made ending the construction of Trump’s border wall a centrepiece of his campaign.

Yet Alejandro Mayorkas – Biden’s appointed Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and a major architect of Obama’s deportation machine – and the Department of Justice, have left open the possibility of continuing to build the border wall to ‘fill in the gaps’.

Despite Biden adamantly claiming that his administration is going to “withdraw the lawsuits” and is “not going to confiscate the land” of people living along the US-Mexico border to make room for the border wall, about 130 ‘eminent domain’ cases (government expropriation of private property for public use) remain active in Texas’s southern district court.

And these are not old, forgotten cases; the vast majority of them were active as recently as 21 March, three months after Biden issued an executive order that supposedly put a stop to the border wall. Biden’s most basic immigration promise has yet to be met. And this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Another extension of Trump-era policy is the continued use of ‘Title 42’, a provision of the 1944 Public Health Service Act, which allows for deporting and/or turning away recent migrants and asylum seekers who are coming from countries impacted by a communicable disease (in this case, Covid-19). This order has been used to turn away migrants as quickly as possible, all under the guise of ‘public health’.

Since March 2020, Customs and Border Protection has carried out over 640,000 expulsions under Title 42, usually ignoring the legal requirement to first check the risk threat to returnees.

Immigrants and asylum seekers aren’t any more likely to spread Covid-19 than students, logistic workers, and others who are crossing the border for ‘essential reasons’. The wide application of this provision has allowed the Biden administration to slow or stop the majority of immigration.

Not only has the Biden administration continued to use and defend Title 42, but Biden has increased its use. In December 2020 (the last full month of the Trump administration), Trump used Title 42 to deport 60,596 people. This April, Biden deported an astronomical 109,963 people under the provision.

Rather than reversing this policy, the new administration has doubled down on its use, while assuring the public that it’s more focused on ‘humane’ treatment of migrants and asylum seekers than its predecessor.

Since Biden took office, the corporate media has tended to cover immigration less and less, despite the fact that many Trump-era policies that were previously front-page news are still continuing.

This stems from the fact that US capitalism, in general, wants a stable administration with minimal controversy as it reels from continuous crises. This is evidenced by the fact that many news outlets have praised the administration for the fact that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportations hit a record low in April, but the Biden administration is using other means to deport immigrants, like Title 42.

Biased judges

Another area of significant concern is the appointment of immigration court judges. The new administration’s first slate of immigration court appointees (17 in total) all received their initial offers during the Trump presidency, further solidifying that Biden has not posed, or even considered, a serious change in immigration policy.

To make matters worse, the majority of these appointees have experienced working for ICE and as prosecutors, while none have any experience defending migrants.

This preference for judges whose experience is solely in enforcing deportations reveals how stacked the deck is against migrants. Capitalism uses immigration as a source of cheaper labour, suppressing wages by pitting native-born workers against immigrants as well as taking advantage of economic insecurity.

Methods of control, like the looming threat of deportation, are used to prevent workers from asserting their rights. Corporations routinely threaten undocumented workers with deportation when they attempt to unionise or attempt any form of collective action.

This administration is no stranger to the tactic of ‘rebranding’ facilities and institutions it previously pledged to get rid of entirely.

In March, it was reported that family detention centres would be renamed as ‘family reception centres’.

Despite the shift to softer language, the nature of these facilities hasn’t changed. They remain cramped, with little room to move and with migrants forced to sleep in rows on the floor.

This is similar to how inmates are routinely exploited for their labour in the private, for-profit prison system, detainees in ICE facilities are paid just $1 per day for their labour.

The administration has also taken the controversial step of reopening child migrant facilities (nothing but a fancy term for putting kids in prison-like conditions) created under the Trump administration, even after Biden broadly vowed while campaigning during the presidential election to end the detention of migrant children.

For years, immigration activists have fought against these facilities. Many activists have compared them to concentration or internment camps.

And while it is true that the Trump administration served as an architect to the policy of family separation, Democrats and most mainstream media outlets have notably ignored or underplayed the inconvenient fact that the facilities themselves were constructed during the earlier Obama-Biden administration.

One reporter noted that Biden would allow the children into the country but “they’re also immediately going to be put into deportation proceedings.”

In a clear attack on the right to seek asylum, Vice-President Kamala Harris spoke in Guatemala, telling undocumented migrants “do not come” to the US, despite US imperialism being a driving cause of migration from Central America.

Make no mistake, kinder rhetoric when deporting migrants does nothing to soften the real dangers migrants and asylum seekers face. Only the working class, both native-born and immigrant, can win real change using our power.

The Independent Socialist Group calls for a mass movement, organised and coordinated by the labour movement, socialist organisations, and progressive groups, which can:

  • Coordinate the formation of democratic committees to organise defence against deportations and ICE raids
  • Organise mass rallies, meetings, and marches to fight against anti-immigrant racism
  • Fight for the abolition of ICE and the dismantling of migrant camps, the immediate recognition and legalisation of all undocumented immigrants living in the US, and the right to asylum
  • Organise union drives in all industries to win representation and protections for all workers
  • Build stronger links to workers organisations and movements outside of the US to coordinate international strategy
  • Build a workers’ party to challenge the pro-capitalist duopoly of Democrat and Republican parties and fight for policies that can defeat border militarisation, raise wages, and defend the rights of all workers.

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June 2021