Biden’s Immigration Moves Are Making a Mockery of His Vow to “Heal the Nation’s Soul”

Joe Biden’s most consistent pledge since launching his campaign in 2019 has been to “heal the soul of the nation” after four years of Donald Trump. Yet on immigration, he’s already signaling alarming continuity with the most outwardly racist part of Trump’s agenda.

Joe Biden on March 12 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Other than beating Donald Trump, probably the most central, repeated pledge of Joe Biden’s campaign was to “restore” or “heal the soul of the nation,” something he has promised to do since before he even joined the race right up to his victory speech a week ago.

No one knew what this meant, and reporters didn’t really bother to ask. Beyond reciting the line endlessly, Biden himself never went into it, other than to imply he wouldn’t compliment white supremacists in public.

Maybe that was because it was easy enough to guess: Trump had kicked off his campaign in 2015 by demonizing Mexican immigrants, and he had spent four years as president putting in place a smorgasbord of discriminatory immigration measures, including part of an idiotic and destructive border wall between the United States and Mexico. As the Washington Post put it, “Trump’s immigration policies speak louder than his racist, xenophobic words.” A President Biden would, presumably, not just avoid saying racist things in public — a surprisingly tall order for the candidate — but, at the very least, roll back these measures and shift the underlying thinking that had led to them.

Well, Biden is now president-elect, and even that bare minimum expectation was too optimistic, it turns out. Before he’s even been sworn in, Biden is already distancing himself from a wholesale reversal of immigration policy under Trump.

“These Things Are Going to Happen”

Perhaps the clearest signal that Biden isn’t planning anything pathbreaking on the immigration front is his appointment of former Obama immigration adviser Cecilia Muñoz to his transition team.

Muñoz had a long, celebrated career as an immigrant rights advocate with the National Council of La Raza, before her reputation crashed headlong into a cliff upon joining the Obama administration. Perhaps her most infamous moment came in 2011, when she defended Obama’s own immigrant family separation by explaining to PBS’s Maria Hinojosa that “even broken laws have to be enforced.”

Thanks to Obama’s deportation policies, tens of thousands of undocumented parents to US citizen children were arrested and deported over the years, and sent to countries they often had little to no connection to, sometimes with more than a good chance they would face bodily harm at their final destination, with predictably fatal results. Confronted with the inhumanity of this policy, Muñoz offered a stunningly blasé reply:

At the end of the day, when you have immigration law that’s broken . . . some of these things are going to happen. Even if the law is executed with perfection, there will be parents separated from their children. We don’t have to like it, but it is a result of having a broken system of laws. And the answer to that problem is reforming the law.

Beyond the callousness of this talking point — imagine how you’d react if you saw a Trump official explaining, with similar doe-eyed affect, that no one likes separating families, but the law was the law — it was hard to take seriously. Obama had not only routinely flouted laws and the Constitution itself when it came to fighting terrorists, but he had failed to prosecute or even arrest a single Wall Street banker over the widespread fraud that had tanked the global economy in 2008, and had let big banks off the hook for law-breaking on the basis that they were “too big to jail.” Sure enough, despite promising in November 2014 that he would only deport “felons not families,” Obama spent the next two years continuing to deport thousands of immigrants whose only crime was illegally entering the country.

Even though Muñoz can take credit for persuading Obama to eventually take executive action to protect some undocumented immigrants, her public defenses of his largely merciless treatment of migrants angered many. During her time in government, Muñoz had justified Obama’s decision to send the National Guard to southern border states, which sparked alarm in local Latino communities; insisted that “as long as Congress gives us the money to deport 400,000 people a year, that’s what the administration’s going to do”; and falsely claimed that most of those deported were criminals.

It’s little wonder that immigrant rights activists called for her resignation and charged she’d “turned her back” on her legacy. It’s also little wonder that immigration advocates are apoplectic about this latest news, one calling it a “huge mistake,” and another calling Muñoz “the one person besides Stephen Miller who has spent years of her public service dedicated to the smooth execution of mass deportation policy at the West Wing level.”

It also flies in the face of Biden’s already nebulous vow to repair the nation’s soul. Trump’s own, more deliberate policy of family separation became, since 2018, the flashpoint for and embodiment of his administration’s racism. Just look at how various critics reacted to it:

  • “A moral stain that is hard to believe” — Rev. Luis Cortés, founder of Esperanza
  • “Unconscionable cruelty” — Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX)
  • “A damning display of white supremacy in action” — Julián Castro, ex-congressman and former Obama housing secretary
  • “Immoral” — Pope Francis
  • “Inflicted harm and pain on thousands of children and corroded our deepest values” — Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX)
  • “It is asking the United States to become something, someone we should not become, and it needs to be something that we somehow resoundingly reject” — Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter

Even Biden himself responded that “some things are black and white. Families belong together.” Yet he’s now choosing to appoint someone who defended a practice that was, at least when Trump did it, labeled everything from white supremacy to “state terrorism” to “an offense against nature and civilized society” to help put together his immigration team.

Monuments to Racism

There are a host of other less-than-encouraging signals from the incoming Biden administration.

Biden is, so far, holding to his position that while “there will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration,” he also won’t dismantle what’s already been built of what one activist accurately described as a “monument to racism.” In other words, in a time of liberal enthusiasm over bringing down racist statues, Biden will leave in place the most powerful physical embodiment of the thing he has promised to heal the nation’s soul from, the basis of chants that have been used to bully Latino students all over the country. The wall, it seems, will stay where it is, ready for work to resume once the next Republican, possibly Trump himself, occupies the White House.

Biden has also promised to start working to reunite the immigrant families separated by Trump on the very first day of his presidency, a baseline measure given the crime involved. But what exactly would that look like in practice? According to NBC News, “two sources familiar with the incoming administration’s planning on immigration” say that “Biden has so far not decided whether separated parents will be given the opportunity to come to the U.S. to reunite with their children and pursue claims to asylum.” Which certainly sounds like Biden’s reunification plan could involve eventually deporting the kids.

What else Biden’s team has been feeding to the press doesn’t inspire any more confidence, either. Having spoken with sixteen current and former Homeland Security personnel involved in Biden’s transition, the New York Times predicts a Biden administration may be faced with a “politically fraught” surge of migrants following Trump’s exit, which will “test Mr. Biden’s ability to balance the demands of the liberal and moderate wings of his party while preventing overflowing border facilities.” Given Biden’s instincts and history, it’s not hard to envision how this might go.

At the same time, both the Times and the Associated Press report that Biden will move “cautiously” on the issue of asylum “to avoid setting off a new wave of arrivals,” and that Biden won’t immediately lift Trump’s public health order that lets border officials summarily expel migrants who turn up at the border without detaining, processing, and allowing them to apply for asylum. In the first month alone, Trump used the order to expel more than 6,000 migrants, including unaccompanied children.

For the past year, the order has been roundly condemned in the harshest terms, with liberal news outlets dismissing Trump’s supposed public health justification as racist misdirection. “Asylum is dead,” declared Mother Jones, and the “myth of American decency died with it.” The Washington Post suggested it was “an excuse to continue President Trump’s assault on asylum seekers.” At Vox, John Washington wrote that the policy was part of a history of “baseless reproach, nativist scapegoating, and racist restrictions,” and that allowing Trump to use “false flags and racist fears” to attack migrants “will not inoculate us from the virus, but, in fact, infect us with something even worse.” A host of experts stressed the measure was unnecessary from a public health standpoint.

With Biden reportedly planning to keep it in place for explicitly restrictionist reasons, this will be a test for the liberal establishment. While human rights organizations — which have variously called Trump’s order “an illegal, racist distraction,” the choice of “racism and xenophobia over a science-based approach” intended to “further terrorize immigrants,” and “a reactionary measure that has virtually no basis in fact” — are likely to continue hammering the next administration, it remains to be seen if the liberal press and anti-Trump infrastructure will condemn and push back against Biden’s prolongation of the order the same way they would have if he were Trump.

Other anti-immigration measures put in place by Trump will stay in place due to administrative inertia, such as Trump’s “public charge” rule denying green cards to immigrants who depend on government assistance. According to legal experts, getting rid of this and the rest of the mess of restrictionist rules put in place by Trump will be a lengthy, legally complicated process.

Anti-Trumpism, Sans Trump

Certainly, Biden is planning to undo some of Trump’s most shocking actions, including by reinstating DACA and getting rid of the Muslim ban. But meager though Biden’s campaign promises were, his pledge was not to reverse most of Trump’s actions, while keeping some of them in place. He ran on “healing the soul of the nation” from Trump’s racism, made manifest in the outgoing president’s treatment of migrants.

It was always clear that this oft-repeated line was feel-good pabulum meant to save Biden from being tied to substantial promises. But there’s not a person on Earth who would’ve believed that line meant Biden intended to leave in place the most vivid physical symbol of Trump’s bigotry, keep his anti-asylum public health order, and put his transition in the hands of an individual who explicitly defended government separation of immigrant families.

Anti-Trumpism should mean not just resisting bad things when Trump did them, but the Trump-like things any other politician does. Biden’s been given a free pass this election, for fear of giving Trump another four years. Now, there’s no more excuse. Will the nation’s soul be repaired because Biden will actually refrain from doing the kinds of things that rightly outraged people when Trump did them? Or will it be because you won’t hear about them anymore?