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When President Biden took office, he vowed to “undo the moral and national shame” of the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to immigration. But in the intervening months, though Biden has reversed some of the most controversial policies, he has kept others in place — a tactic that has led to criticism from both the left and the right.
The dynamic came to a head last week in response to the administration’s treatment of Haitian migrants who had gathered at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum. Immigration advocates and progressive members of the Democratic Party denounced Biden for “inhumane” actions by border authorities and for deporting thousands of those migrants. Conservatives blamed Biden for what they categorize as a “border crisis” caused by his decision to throw out his predecessor’s tactics. Similar criticisms from both directions were raised during a surge in border crossings in March.
Biden has eliminated many of the “cruel and reckless” policies that defined former President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda, including family separation, the so-called Muslim ban and construction of the border wall. Others have been kept in place — most notably a public health initiative known as Title 42, put into effect at the beginning of the pandemic, that allows the U.S. to turn away migrants who would otherwise be eligible to apply for asylum. The Biden administration is also reportedly considering reviving the “remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers, which forced many migrants to spend months in squalid camps waiting for their applications to be processed.
Why there’s debate
Critics on the left say Biden has caused undue suffering by leaving those Trump policies in place and continuing to permit aggressive enforcement tactics at the border. Others say his administration, for all its talk of “humane” immigration, has failed to put systems in place to ensure migrants receive proper care and due process when they cross into the United States. The administration has also faced criticism for repeatedly telling immigrants, “Do not come” to the U.S. — a message that such critics say ignores the dangerous circumstances in Central America that compel many migrants to journey to America.
Conservatives note that, regardless of what Biden says, his more permissive policies have sent a signal to potential immigrants that now is the time to make the trip to the U.S. By abandoning Trump’s deterrence policies, they argue, Biden has invited migrants to come in numbers that would inevitably overwhelm the immigration system — leading to both a surge in illegal immigration and unsafe conditions in migrant camps and detention facilities.
For all the criticism that Biden’s immigration approach has received, many experts argue that he is shouldering far too much blame for a system that’s been crippled by antiquated tactics, congressional inaction, insufficient resources and anti-immigrant politics since long before he took office. Others say outsize attention paid to sporadic situations at the border causes the public to overlook the many ways in which Biden has made the broader U.S. immigration system much more equitable and effective.
A central pillar of Biden’s immigration agenda is his proposal to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Democrats’ attempts to follow through on that vision have so far been stymied by procedural rules and steadfast Republican opposition.
Biden can’t keep blaming Trump for his own immigration failures
“I would like Biden apologists and White House spokespeople to tell me precisely how much more bigotry and cruelty this administration is allowed to dish out towards immigrants of color before they take personal responsibility for ending it. How long, exactly, is it supposed to take before international human rights standards are applied at our border?” — Elie Mystal, Nation
Biden invited a surge in immigration the system couldn’t possibly handle
“The border remains a mess, and one reason is the signal Mr. Biden sent to migrants by rescinding Remain in Mexico. Migrants keep coming because they hear that if they get into the U.S. they have a decent chance of staying.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
The administration let short-term challenges derail its long-term vision
“The good ideas that this administration has have been thwarted largely by events on the ground and a system that has not been reimagined and built anew. I just think that they are struggling from going from challenge to challenge from situation to situation.” — Frank Sharry, immigrant rights advocate, to USA Today
Biden has no coherent immigration policy
“Our immigration policy is often too harsh and too lax at once, treating lawbreakers better than people who play by the rules and passing unforgiving laws that are inconsistently enforced. Even by those standards, Joe Biden is making it up as he goes along.” — Dan McLaughlin, New York Post
Not being Trump isn’t enough
“Biden is not Trump 2.0 on immigration. But this President was supposed to be more than just a little better than Trump; he was supposed to be day to Trump's night. Trump dropped the bar of decency and openness to immigrants so low that it would take effort for a Democratic president not to clear it.” — Jill Filipovic, CNN
Biden is allowing Republican hard-liners to set the terms of the debate
“Republicans cannot be appeased. No matter what direction Biden takes they will condemn it. So why not take the moral path, the righteous path, the ethical path?” — Charles M. Blow, New York Times
It was a mistake to reverse Trump’s policies
“Conditions continue to worsen and the president doesn’t have a plan for bringing them under control. His best option is to return to the Trump plan, which was working.” — Editorial, Boston Herald
It’s foolish to think telling migrants not to come will make a difference
“Simply telling people fleeing poverty, the devastating effects of climate change, political instability, and violence (often stoked by decades of U.S. policy) not to come is, of course, not an effective strategy.” — Esther Wang, New Republic
Biden doesn’t get credit for the real progress he's made on immigration
“Biden is doing a lot more to make immigration policy humane than progressives who sloganeer about abolishing ICE have ever done. But he gets no credit.” — Max Boot, Washington Post
The border has distracted from how aggressively Biden has reformed Trump’s policies
“This is a sea change. There’s just no other way of describing it. And it is a change that has happened at a much faster rate than people expected. … Most of it has happened under the radar. [The media] hasn’t covered it, and the reason for that is because all the oxygen is taken by what’s happening at the border.” — Muzaffar Chishti, Migration Policy Institute senior fellow, to Rolling Stone
Immigration politics are impossible to navigate
“Trump polarized the politics of immigration in a way that makes Biden’s border bind uniquely difficult. For many in Biden's base, any kind of immigration enforcement action can smack of Trumpism. And for many Republicans, any attempt at reform is tantamount to giving away the country … leaving the White House politically isolated and with no clear refuge.” — Alex Seitz-Wald, NBC News
Outsize criticism and credit are part of being president, especially on immigration
“The mess at the border is just the latest layer of a multilayered cake. The problem is that when you are president, not only do you get credit for things that you are not responsible for, you also get blame for things you are not wholly responsible for. Joe Biden is experiencing the downside.” — William Galston, Brookings Institution senior fellow, to Los Angeles Times
Whatever blame Biden shoulders should be shared by his predecessors
“Sequential administrations have failed to recognize, essentially, the change in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. We are still trying to manage migration that is basically of people who are so desperate, fleeing for their lives, seeking protection. And no level of deterrence that the United States is frankly willing to do is going to really affect that.” — Theresa Cardinal Brown, immigration policy expert, to NPR
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