In 2016, Donald Trump made immigration restrictions a signature campaign issue, one that drew a core group of passionate voters. Since becoming president, Trump has pursued policies aimed at significantly reducing immigration—especially in the months after Covid-19 arrived on our shores. Yet some voters, polls show, have balked at his more draconian measures, which should provide an opening to Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee. The former vice president’s problem, however, is that the entire Democratic Party has lurched significantly to the left on immigration—and his own platform reflects that move.
Whereas Democrats, along with pro-business Republicans, at one time justified a liberal immigration policy as a net economic and civic plus for America, the Left has transformed immigration into a social-justice issue in which advocates preach that almost nothing less than open borders are sufficient. The “root causes” of our ongoing border crisis, Biden’s own agenda argues, are problems like bad trade policy and insufficient attention to climate change, which can only be addressed with sweeping cultural changes that go well beyond traditional immigration policy. There’s little in the polling that suggests such an agenda will appeal to any but the most committed leftists, leaving a giant policy vacuum between Trump and Biden on immigration.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump called for the construction of a border wall to stem illegal immigration from the south. Since then, he’s faced criticism from his base of voters for stumbling in his efforts to get the wall built, thanks to funding delays and court cases. Though he pledged to construct a wall of at least 450 miles by the end of this year, by May most of the federal government’s effort had been to replace some 200 miles of barriers that already existed. Little, if any, new wall has been built.
Even so, Trump has issued a series of orders that have gradually reduced the influx of legal immigrants, beginning with an executive order banning residents of seven countries the administration said failed to meet U.S security standards, including five in the Mideast, from entering the country—the so-called Muslim Ban. The order also sharply cut the number of refugees permitted to enter the U.S. Earlier this year, Trump expanded the ban to six other countries. In addition, the administration has issued a “public charge” rule to limit the chance of legal immigrants becoming a burden on taxpayers. The number of applicants denied permanent residence based on these new metrics increased significantly, from slightly more than 1,000 in the last year of the Obama administration to more than 13,000 in 2018.
Finally, early this year, Trump suspended legal entry into the country from “immigrants who present a risk to the U.S. labor market” in the wake of the economic shutdown. That could produce the largest decline in legal immigration in decades. Though the administration says the move is a temporary necessity to protect American health and jobs, Trump had already supported permanent lower legal immigration when, in August 2017, he endorsed a Senate proposal to switch America from a family-based system of legal entry into one based on skills. That approach also included cutting legal immigration by more than half a million annually.
Much of Biden’s immigration policy revolves around reversing what Trump has done and returning to Obama-era policies, including rescinding the public-charge rule; reversing the ban on visitors from 13 countries; ending the slowdown of visa approvals that occurred as immigration officials take longer to scrutinize applicants for entry; and canceling the Covid-19 immigration shutdown. Some of what Biden proposes is technocratic in nature: investing in “better technology,” improving “cross agency collaboration,” and dramatically increasing “U.S. government resources” and “public-private partnerships” at the border to protect and process immigrants detained in detention camps.
Though Biden’s proposals don’t go as far as those of some of his former Democratic primary opponents, such as Bernie Sanders—who advocated for breaking up Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and placing a moratorium on deportations—his version of border enforcement would be an invitation to many who don’t have prospects of legal entry, but might be encouraged to come illegally. That’s because Biden would focus enforcement on the narrow category of “threats to national security and public safety,” but would end workplace raids and enforcement at a host of what he calls “sensitive locations,” such as schools and hospitals.
As much of the Democratic Party has lurched left on immigration, compromise has become difficult. That’s evident in Biden’s strong support for the so-called Diversity Lottery, a program established by 1990 legislation that grants 50,000 visas annually to individuals from countries with low levels of immigration to the U.S. Originally created to boost visas to people from countries like Ireland who had seen their numbers diminish with the immigration overhaul of 1965, the program has long outlived its original purpose, and even one of the sponsors of the 1990 legislation, Senator Chuck Schumer, proposed several years ago to end the lottery as part of a bipartisan coalition seeking reform. Nonetheless, Biden defends the lottery in the kind of language reserved for deep moral causes, lauding “the critical role of diversity preferences” in our immigration program and describing the lottery as “essential to preserving a robust and vibrant immigration system.”
Biden drifts even further from the real issues when he argues for solving the larger “root causes” of immigration by increasing aid to foreign countries. He argues that addressing problems like climate change—in order to prevent rising temperatures from destroying jobs in countries south of the U.S.—and working to boost local economies with U.S. dollars, would slow immigration. At best, this is a slow, uncertain approach to immigration problems. But this approach has been tried before without cutting immigration. Research shows, for instance, that when poorer countries begin to grow richer, emigration increases because more people can afford to move.
The Obama administration’s failures on key immigration issues also haunt Biden. He has excoriated Trump for trying to end Obama’s “Dreamers” program, which protected from deportation illegal immigrants brought here as young children. But the Obama administration was unsuccessful in several attempts to pass legislation that would have protected Dreamers, even when Democrats controlled Congress. Now, Trump has been hinting ahead of the election that he plans a new proposal that would solve the Dreamers issue—one that might upset his base but appeal to Latino voters on the fence about the president.
Though Trump receives a steady stream of withering criticism from activists and the press on immigration issues, polls suggest that an increasingly progressive Democratic Party will have trouble capitalizing on the issue. It’s not something you can always tell from the headlines, however. For instance, a caption on a recent poll released by Gallup said, “Americans Want More, Not Less, Immigration.” The July poll did show that over the course of the Trump administration, support for cutting immigration levels had declined, while a growing percentage of Americans backed increasing immigration. Still, the survey showed, only 34 percent said they currently favored allowing in more newcomers, while 28 percent wanted less. But, crucially, 36 percent favored keeping immigration levels where they are. In other words, after three and a half years of Trump’s increasingly restrictive immigration policies, only slightly more than a third of Americans want to further open the gates to immigrants, while nearly two-thirds favor where we are now—or even lower levels. Trump has clearly given up some ground on the issue with his hard line. But so far, there’s little evidence to show that voters might be ready for a massive embrace of Biden’s proposals.
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