Originally Published in The Washington Post
Opinion by Greg Sargent - November 12, 2020
CBS News has now obtained an advance look at some of the things Biden intends to begin doing on immigration immediately upon taking office.
The plans are ambitious. And this bodes well, because it suggests at least the possibility that Biden won’t be trapped in an old, defensive political mind-set reminiscent of 1990s centrist Democrats.
First, a quick rundown of a few of the immediate things that Biden has planned:
- Rescind Trump’s ban on travel from a dozen mostly majority-Muslim countries.
- Implement a 100-day freeze on deportations while looking at ways to deprioritize the removals of undocumented immigrants who aren’t violent criminals. That would reverse Trump’s restructuring of enforcement priorities, which designated all categories of undocumented immigrants as ripe targets for removal.
- Fully restore the program that protects hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” or people brought here illegally as children, from deportation and provides them work permits. Trump tried but failed to kill the program, and restoring it will presumably entail opening up applications to classes of these immigrants that had been recently restricted from applying under Trump, such as new applicants, as opposed to only renewals.
- Withdraw from agreements Trump reached with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that permitted the U.S. to shift rejected asylum seekers to those countries.
That last one strongly suggests that the new administration will be looking hard at various ways to undo some of the most reprehensible aspects of the Trump-Miller legacy — the various policies they used to dissuade asylum seeking by subjecting migrants to as much misery as possible.
This would presumably include ending the policy of making hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers remain in Mexico, pending their applications. The CBS report does not say whether this is a certainty. But Biden did promise it, and the report suggests Biden officials are already beginning to grapple with the many logistical challenges this will entail.
The CBS report also suggests that Biden officials are already starting to think about ways to increase foreign aid to Central American countries. That would likely be part of a broader effort at some kind of negotiated international approach that would use economic aid and other humane measures to dissuade these migrations. This would constitute a huge step toward sane international engagement to solve a profoundly challenging cross-border problem.
All this suggests that the Biden administration is not primarily viewing these reversals as politically treacherous territory to be carefully tiptoed around.
In this context, it’s notable that Biden just announced the appointment of Ronald A. Klain as his chief of staff. Former president Bill Clinton’s senior adviser, Rahm Emanuel, infamously wrote memos advising Clinton to embrace crackdowns on immigration to triangulate and appropriate GOP positions. The combination of these new moves and the Klain appointment hints at a very different approach to the politics of the issue.
There are plenty of reasons for caution, however. As noted the other day, the logistical obstacles to unwinding a lot of Trump’s degradations are daunting. For instance, Biden has vowed to increase the annual cap on refugees to 125,000, but during the Trump era the nonprofit network for easing their resettlement has been gutted.
What’s more, it’s still not clear how quickly Biden will want to lift Trump’s various restrictions on legal immigration instituted in response to the coronavirus pandemic, particularly with it surging right now. That might be seen as a political third rail.
But in a sense, that doesn’t need to be seen as too problematic. It will take a long time to get many of these changes up and running, and Biden should be granted the space he needs to get the virus under control in the short term.
Above all, the biggest caveat of all is that we remain in an extremely deep humanitarian hole on immigration, due to the sheer hateful comprehensiveness of the Trump-Miller agenda. We need to keep demand alive for big solutions, such as legalizing the millions of undocumented immigrants here, lending more support to sanctuary cities as an alternative to the inhumane Homeland Security enforcement dragnet, and protections for migrant workers who blow the whistle on exploitation.
“It is clear Biden has a mandate to return administrative policy back to the 2016 status quo,” Chris Newman, general counsel for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told me. “And he should do so by exerting executive authority as robustly and quickly as possible. But this is the bare minimum. It’s necessary but insufficient.”
A lot is riding on those Senate runoff races in Georgia, to be sure. But whatever happens there, we should keep the goal of a much more humane and pragmatic immigration system in our sights.