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No, Biden Is Not Trump on Immigration
He should do much more but he marks a decisive break from his predecessor's inhumanity and xenophobia
Wikipedia. Creative Commons. Gage Skidmore
The Biden administration’s record on immigration is far from perfect. But is it nearly as bad as Donald Trump’s, as some immigration advocates are claiming? Not by a mile. President Biden deserves criticism on some counts, but comparing him to former President Trump is egregious.
“Joe Biden has kept or replicated some of his predecessor’s most reprehensible, least humane border policies,” columnist Catherine Rampell wrote recently in The Washington Post. Rampell and others are especially upset that Biden has not done more to dismantle Trump’s asylum and border enforcement policies.
But not only are they failing to acknowledge that Biden has made significant changes in those areas, they are also not taking into account the decisive break he has made from his predecessor on other aspects of immigration policy.
Asylum law gives individuals with credible claims of persecution the right to apply for asylum within one year of entering the United States, even if they entered the country without authorization. But the U.S. has historically under-invested in its asylum-processing capacity—judges, courts. The upshot is a perennial backlog of asylum cases waiting to be heard. Any uptick in the number of asylum seekers flocking at the border and the system gets even more overwhelmed, which is why all administrations in recent memory have taken the easy way out and turned these people away, rather than letting them enter and giving them a proper hearing.
Biden’s initial response was no different. Indeed, as the border-crossing traffic picked up last year after the COVID-related lull, he cranked up the Customs and Border Protection apprehension machinery, throwing out some 2.4 million people trying to cross into the United States in 2022—the largest number in history. (Some fraction of these apprehensions involved individuals who had previously tried to enter the U.S. and been expelled without being booked, artificially inflating the estimates of border crossers.) This is what—rightly—troubled immigration activists.
But recently the Biden administration has implemented new regulations that allow 30,000 migrants each month from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba to apply for “humanitarian parole” from their homes, without trekking to the U.S. border, as long as they have someone in the U.S. who will sponsor them. These are the primary countries responsible for the latest border rush. According to the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh, after this legal option was created, illegal crossings from the southwest border went down 39% between December 2022 and February 2023.
In other words, Biden has tried to deal with the root cause of the border rush. By the end of 2023, The New York Times estimates, some 360,000 Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, and Cubans will have been able to enter the U.S. legally under this private sponsorship program. As The Times notes, that is “more people than were issued immigrant visas from these countries in the last 15 years combined.” (Separately, 300,000 Ukrainians have also availed themselves of this program.)
Contrast this with Trump’s response to the border “crisis” on his watch. He declared a “zero tolerance” policy against border crossers and started snatching children from migrant parents in an effort to enforce it. (Previous administrations have also separated children from adults, but on the suspicion of trafficking—not from parents—and on an individual basis—not wholesale as a matter of policy.)
Trump’s cruel border policies sent shock waves throughout the country, but it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise given that few presidents used rhetoric as dehumanizing toward immigrants as he did. Indeed, his announcement for president in 2015 was accompanied with vicious slams against Mexico and Mexicans. “When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best,” he declared. Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs, they're bringing crime” to U.S. shores, he harrumphed. He accused them of being “rapists.”
He also upped the rhetoric of an invasion at the border—even though unauthorized migration was at a nearly 50-year low when Trump declared his candidacy. Biden of course has done none of that. In fact, he has maintained a rather high tone when discussing the subject.
A more justified rap against Biden is his continued use of Title 42, a public health provision that Trump invoked in the wake of the pandemic in March 2022, to expel asylum seekers without a hearing or due process on grounds that they posed an imminent health threat. In the subsequent 10 months of his administration, Trump expelled some 450,000 migrants under this provision.
Biden, however, exceeded that rate, expelling 419,502 people between October 2022 and March 2023, which works out to a rate of more than 839,000 people per year. (At the same time, the Biden administration has also expelled or detained 561,683 unauthorized migrants under Title 8, a federal law that allows the government to eject repeat offenders or other inadmissible border crossers.)
The administration’s use of Title 42 is indeed lamentable. But it was driven by an aggressive COVID-fighting, not anti-immigration, strategy—which is why the administration tried to scrap the measure last year. But 19 red states sued and a divided Supreme Court asked the administration to keep the policy in place pending a final ruling. The title will finally expire next month when the pandemic state of emergency is lifted, rendering the issue moot.
That Biden’s border policies were not driven by animus toward immigrants is also evident from how he has conducted himself on the non-border aspects of immigration policy—again in sharp contrast to Trump. Trump’s 2016 campaign platform called for not only cracking down on illegal immigration but also a temporary halt to legal immigration until some unspecified time when employers exhausted “the pool of unemployed immigrant and native workers.” Once elected, Trump reduced legal immigration at every opportunity, virtually eliminating the United States’ longtime generous refugee resettlement program.
During his term, refugee admissions fell from nearly 85,000 in 2016 to 11,411 in the last year of his administration, well below the abysmally low 18,000 ceiling he himself set. He tried to end the H-1B program that allows high-skilled foreign workers to work in the tech industry. He even made it less attractive for foreign students to study in the U.S. by closing off their training and employment options after graduation. Overall, the number of green cards handed out dropped from over 1.18 million in 2016 to 707,362 in 2020.
Biden dismantled many of these restrictions and even made some improvements. David Bier, another immigration analyst at the Cato Institute, has noted that the number of immigrant visas issued by month, which had begun to fall under Trump even before the pandemic, is now slightly higher than what it was at the beginning of the Trump administration.
In addition, Biden has:
Defended the Obama-era DACA program against GOP legal attacks. DACA grants “Dreamers”—those brought to this country as children without proper authorization—temporary legal status.
Ended Trump’s travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries.
Rescinded the ban that Trump imposed on all permanent immigration except the spouses and minors of American citizens.
Lifted Trump’s worldwide ban on most nonfarm temporary work visas.
Dramatically increased the number of temporary seasonal visas for low-skilled, nonagricultural foreign workers. Biden has also reformed the timing of the allocation for the visas so that employers can use them in summer months when demand is strongest in some jobs.
Rapidly processed employment-based green cards so that congressionally mandated caps could be fully used rather than wasted. In fact, in 2022, the highest number of such green cards ever was processed. (One of Trump’s tricks was to slow visa processing to a crawl so that the yearly quota was never met.)
Removed the bureaucratic roadblocks that Trump erected for securing high-tech H-1B visas and their renewal.
And then there is Biden’s embrace of Afghan and Ukrainian refugees that would never have happened under Trump. This is not speculation given that Trump made it a point to slam immigrants from “shithole countries.” (By contrast, President Ronald Reagan spoke lovingly of immigrants as America’s greatest strength and granted amnesty to some 3 million undocumented immigrants, mostly from Third World countries.)
Biden deserves to be criticized for not placing a higher priority on immigration reform, given that Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate during his first two years in office. But the truth of the matter is that since the Republicans now control the House and the Democrats’ lead in the Senate is narrow, any immigration reform will require some Republican support. But that is not going to be forthcoming since House Republicans are fighting for more border restrictions, not more-open immigration policies, and cannot even agree among themselves.
Last week, a group of Republican lawmakers announced they would not support an enforcement-only bill, derailing plans for a quick vote on an immigration bill within the first 100 days of Republican control. The stalemate makes passage of meaningful reform unlikely any time before the next election.
That is too bad given that more enlightened immigration policies could help relieve America’s labor shortage, which has driven up inflation; reverse its aging demographic, which is creating an unsustainable dependency ratio and threatening Social Security and Medicare; and maintain its 100-year-old edge in the world on science, medicine and technology. Indeed, over the last two decades, some 37% of American Nobel Laureates in medicine, chemistry and physics have been foreign-born.
Biden’s record shows that his heart is in the right place. Immigration advocates should hold his feet to the fire to do better. But any comparison with Trump is out of line.