Donald Trump’s departure from the White House has signalled a new era for US immigration policy if the new President’s early moves are anything to go by. Biden, often referred to by Trump as ‘sleepy Joe’, certainly couldn’t be accused of lethargy on his first day in office on the 20th January. The chair in the Oval Office was barely cold before his successor set out a series of measures reversing a number of the former regime’s key immigration policies.
His predecessor’s flagship immigration policy was the wall along the border with Mexico, a key part of Trump’s campaign promise that was emblematic of a hard-line stance on illegal immigrants. Back in August 2020, Biden was unequivocal in announcing his immediate intention to halt work on the project if he won the Presidency, stating that “there will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration”.
He made good on this promise on his first day in office, issuing a presidential proclamation that froze both construction and funding on the project, bringing to an end the state of national emergency along the entirety of the US’s southern border, which Trump had declared in February 2019. There is no hiding the symbolism: where the former President sought to build a wall as part of an ‘America First’ Presidency, Biden is seeking to bring the wall down, both figuratively and, perhaps, literally.
A softening stance
Biden’s decision to jettison the border wall project is also reflected in his intention, outlined in his proposed immigration reform bill, to remove the word ‘alien’ from US immigration laws. The word is to be replaced with the less controversial ‘non-citizen’. The decision to ditch the term – which Trump often used during speeches and addresses during his Presidency – chimes with Biden’s stated objective too, “…restore our historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers”.
Another headline act is the proposal to offer an amnesty – and eventual citizenship – to undocumented immigrants residing in the country. If passed by the Senate, some eleven million people will qualify for citizenship under the eight-year pathway, which is officially known as the US Citizenship Act of 2021. Tellingly, the bill would bring about some of the most sweeping immigration law changes seen in the past 30 years, including the removal of restrictions on family-based immigration. This will make it easier for relatives to join family members who have already illegally moved to the country. In addition, the changes expand visas to allow access for more foreign workers.
The move to grant citizenship to the nation’s undocumented immigrants also has intriguing economic implications. A large proportion of the 11 million who would qualify is young. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 93% are under the age of 55, with those aged between 16 and 44 accounting for 74% of the total undocumented population. The US has an ageing population. Those aged over 65 accounts for around 16% of the population and the number of 65+ citizens is projected to almost double by 2060 (from 52 million to 95 million). Boosting the number of working-age, tax-paying citizens could be a prudent move in terms of enhancing the productive capacity of the US economy, while simultaneously lowering the country’s fast-growing ageing rate.
The end of America First
The Biden velvet glove to Trump’s iron fist is also evident in the $4 billion that will be assigned to distressed Central America economies over a four-year period, with the aim of stemming the flow of migrants and refugees at the source. Biden has a history in this regard. As Vice President under the Obama administration, he was responsible for implementing a $750 million aid package for the Northern Triangle countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – that was designed to help address a number of root causes of migration. Trump froze the majority of the funding allocated for the project, but Biden has returned, undeterred, with a much larger package.
Perhaps taking his lead from Barack Obama’s ban on refugees and immigrants from Iraq in 2011 (including those who had helped US forces as interpreters and intelligence assets), one of Trump’s first moves after crossing the White House threshold was to sign an executive order preventing refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. The move, which followed a surge in terrorist atrocities in the EU and other western nations, was said to, “…protect the nation from foreign terrorist entry”. Biden immediately repealed the ban (again on his first day in office) and has instructed the State Department to restart visa processing for affected countries. His stance is arguably softer than both of his predecessors.
Going a controversial step further than the Obama administration’s detention of families (some indefinitely), in a number of cases federal officials under the Trump administration separated children from their parents after they illegally entered the country. The detentions, by Obama and Trump, were both intended to deter the trafficking of children. In February 2021, Biden promised to create a task force to reunify separated families but has yet to rescind the order. Human rights groups are lobbying hard to make it happen.
Biden has introduced a conspicuous softening, a series of policies that reassert America’s commitment to taking in asylum-seekers and refugees, and which embrace the country’s history as a nation of immigrants; an attempt to draw a line in the sand between Trump’s ‘America First’ anti-illegal-immigration stance and a new era. The ‘land of the free’ appears, under Biden, to have taken the first steps towards casting off the shackles of nationalism introduced by his predecessor.