Since the presidential election in November, the nation’s attention has been focused on the looming Constitutional crisis facing the country as a result of an incumbent president with authoritarian ambitions who predictably refused to accept the results of the election. But in the wake of the shocking and deadly insurrection on January 6 when extremist Trump supporters, incited by the president himself, attacked the nation’s Capitol, Trump and his enablers were forced to retreat and accept that Joe Biden is now the 46th president of the United States. It appears that after four long years, the nation can turn its attention away from a string of scandals and toward substantive policy debates. One area in which the Biden administration can make an immediate impact is immigration.
Of course, the Biden administration faces significant challenges when it comes to immigration, especially in undoing years of cruelty masquerading as policy. But with control of both the executive and legislative branches, Biden and his administration will have an opportunity to finally push through meaningful immigration reform. Here is what that should look like:
Reunite Families and Investigate and Prosecute Human Rights Violations. The Trump administration’s horrific family separation ploy, part of the administration’s “zero tolerance” refugee policy, tore apart over 900 migrant families. To this day, upwards of six hundred children remain separated from their parents. On his first day in office, Biden promised to reunite those families. But he needs to go further. This cruel and inhumane policy represents nothing less than a crime against humanity and every effort must be made to investigate and punish those responsible for engineering and carrying out this grotesque policy and to ensure that such practices are never again repeated. And although this was the most heinous example of human rights violations at the border, it was far from the only one.
In fact, over the past four years, the United States’ standing in the world has taken a profound hit. Along with the separation of families and the disturbing memories of children in cages, the Muslim Ban, discriminatory travel policies, refugee concentration camps, and unnecessary death and suffering at the border must not be forgotten in the interest of “healing” and “reconciliation.” The United States cannot lead the world if its treatment of the most vulnerable, including those seeking asylum at its borders and opportunities within them, are treated with cruelty and disdain. For four years, the Trump administration took its policy cues from white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. The human rights violations that these men instituted and that have, for four years, defined U.S. immigration policy, must be investigated, punished, and prevented from ever happening again.
Build Relationships, Not Walls: Trump’s “border wall” fantasy project belied the fact that massive barriers at the southern border already exist, and that, in any case, walls are expensive, wasteful, and ineffective ways to control migration flows. Already, Biden has signed an executive order to halt the construction of the wall, which is a positive first step. But the more difficult and long-term goal for the administration should be a focus on building relationships and programs with sending nations to address the root causes of out-migration, namely poverty, corruption, political instability, and insecurity.
Reinstate Asylum and Refugee Protections: As long as the conditions that lead to mass migration remain in sending nations, and as long as the United States remains complicit in those conditions, migration will not cease, and the United States will have a moral responsibility to maintain a robust refugee and asylum system, such as the temporary protected status program that was suspended by Trump and that has saved countless lives of those who, if returned to the countries from which they fled, would face extortion, torture, and death. A generous refugee policy has been the hallmark of American immigration policy for decades, even if it has existed alongside a harsh immigration control regime. America’s credibility as a beacon of freedom and openness rests largely on its ability and willingness to take in the neediest refugees from around the world.
Provide a Permanent Solution to the Status of DREAMers: President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which in 2012 granted temporary relief to young undocumented people brought to the United States as children (commonly known as DREAMers) by way of executive order, survived Trump’s legal attacks. Biden has committed to strengthening the program, and an executive order he signed Wednesday promises to do just that. But deferred action was never a permanent or tenable solution to begin with. Now older and still in search of a permanent fix, DREAMers deserve to be legalized once and for all.
Address the Status of Other Immigrants Too: There should be no excuse for legalizing DREAMers, especially since most Americans support doing so. But one unfortunate consequence of the discourse surrounding DREAMers has been that in calling for relief for younger undocumented people brought to the country as children, activists and policymakers have inadvertently divided the immigrant community into “innocent” and “blameless” younger immigrants who are seen as deserving of protection and legalization because they did not choose to be brought to the United States illegally, and older immigrants who are portrayed as having engaged in willful illegality by choosing to come to the United States without documents. This “illegality,” however, has been a legal and social construction by previous administrations who sought labor discipline and control more than any wrongdoing y immigrants themselves, who have otherwise been courted by eager employers and a nation that thrives off their cheap labor. Studies show that immigrants commit crime at a lower rate than native-born populations, that they pay millions of dollars in taxes every year, and that they are productive members of society who help grow and sustain the economy, even during a deadly global pandemic. These immigrants deserve legalization as much as DREAMers.
Abolish ICE: This may seem like a radical proposition, but it is a sensible one. As activists often point out, ICE is only two decades old and a product of a post-9/11 paranoid political imagination. While ICE’s predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was far from perfect, its enforcement arm was at least properly completed by a “service” component that made it its mission to welcome and assist immigrants and new citizens. By contrast, ICE has been a full-fledged terror machine, one that has brought to mind some of the worst human rights abuses in the twentieth century. Abolishing ICE does not imply open borders; it means framing immigration and refugee policy in complex, nuanced, and humane ways consistent with a democratic, pluralistic, and free society and in ways that acknowledge that migration is an inevitable result of globalization and of the dynamics of transnational capitalism.
With a Biden administration and a Democratic Congress in place, humane, compassionate, sensible, and fair immigration policy is within reach. It will be hard, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said on Thursday, but it can be achieved.
Biden and the Democratic Party have an opportunity to move beyond half measures and to finally push through meaningful immigration solutions that make acknowledge the ongoing critical contributions of immigrants to American society.
Eladio Bobadilla is an assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is an expert in ethnic and immigration history and policy. He tweets from @e_b_bobadilla.