On Immigration, Biden’s First 100 Days and Trump’s Last 100 Days Are Hard to Tell Apart

On immigration, the Biden administration — far from offering an alternative to Trumpist policies that so many commentators characterized as fascistic — has largely followed in Trump's footsteps. But Biden has encountered only a tiny fraction of the criticism Trump attracted for pursuing many of the same anti-immigrant policies.

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress in the House chamber of the US Capitol on April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Melina Mara / Pool-Getty Images)

During the 2020 campaign, there were certain issues where, according to some anti-Trump evangelists, Trump was simply so beyond the pale — immigration and the pandemic maybe chief among them — that even though Democratic nominee Joe Biden might fail to deliver a break from the stagnant economic status quo, it was every American’s solemn duty to halt and reverse the damage by voting him out. A hundred days into Biden’s presidency, it’s no small irony that while he’s made a surprising if uneven break from neoliberal dogma, it’s on these very issues that were core to the argument about Trump as a uniquely vile anomaly that Biden’s administration has done the least to differentiate itself.

On immigration and the border, Biden has continued a number of the most shocking Trump-era policies, policies that were widely labeled racist, irrational, and even fascistic when Trump pursued them — right down to continuing to build Trump’s border wall. It’s fitting, given that Trump’s own immigration policies were an escalation relative to the Democratic administration that preceded him, in which Biden served. And it suggests a more long-term bipartisan consensus on the matter that should put anyone appalled by Trump’s policies at unease.

Biden’s rightward shift on immigration shouldn’t be entirely surprising, not just because this kind of thing has been his political MO for decades, but because the Democratic administration he himself served in before Trump came along laid the groundwork for much of what he did. And that might be the most worrying part.

“Do Not Come”

It can be hard to remember six chaotic years later, but it was Trump’s rhetoric and ideas about immigration that first galvanized anger and opposition against him. And once he was elected, it was his policies on that front that were arguably the most consistent source of controversy and outrage around his administration. They drove media analogies to fascism, and as papers like the Washington Post and Boston Globe correctly argued, those policies more than Trump’s offensive words were the true measure of the depth of his administration’s racism.

Unsurprisingly, with Biden promising to “restore the soul of the nation” if he won the election, press outlets tended to cast Biden’s immigration platform as one of his chief points of contrast with Trump — and fair enough, given the specifics of what Biden was promising. But after a hundred days, Biden’s fallen well short of the promise he made to Mexico’s president at the start of his presidency, that of “reversing the previous administration’s draconian immigration policies.”

It’s not that Biden’s done nothing. Gone are some of the most shocking, high-profile Trump actions, such as the Muslim ban and the “public charge” rule for green card holders, and he’s reinstated Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and set up a task force to reunite families torn apart by Trump’s inhuman border separation policy (though none have been reunited so far). Other positive moves fall closer to “it’s the thought that counts” territory: his immigration reform bill, unveiled on day one, will likely be unrecognizable should it ever pass, particularly with the filibuster in place; and his hundred-day deportation moratorium was undone by the courts.

But Trump’s assault on migrants and the US immigration system was vaster than this, and as Biden officials themselves made clear to news outlets during the transition, keeping key parts of it in place was politically useful for them. In a well-executed sleight of hand, Biden sold an early executive order “reviewing” a handful of Trump’s most outrageous measures, and thus indefinitely preserving them, as a definitive rollback, a framing that was uncritically repeated by a supportive press corps. “Joe Biden reverses anti-immigrant Trump policies hours after swearing-in,” was a representative headline.

One of those policies is Title 42, a vintage piece of Trump administration xenophobia pushed by Trump’s skinhead Svengali, Stephen Miller, that used the pandemic as a justification to effectively close the southern border to undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, automatically expelling anyone who turns up at the border without a visa. The measure was assailed at the time as the height of racism with no public health justification.

Biden’s one tweak to this policy is to exclude unaccompanied kids from the order. Other than that, his administration is using this racist policy in exactly the way Trump did.

“The message is quite clear: do not come,” his homeland security secretary told ABC in March in regards to the policy.

February and March saw the administration expel nearly 72,000 and 102,000 migrants under the order, respectively, including families — and including more Haitian migrants than in the entire last year of the Trump presidency, flown back to their home county where they face the risk of terrible violence. (“Don’t come over,” Biden charmingly tells the country’s migrants in a US embassy tweet).

Similarly complicated has been Biden’s rescinding of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” which sent asylum seekers to Mexico to weather rape, murder, kidnapping, and other horrors while they waited for their case to wind its way through the courts, instead of doing so from the safety of the United States. The policy may be gone, but Biden’s solution to it is proceeding at a glacial pace: by the end of March, only 15 percent of the more than 26,000 cases pending under the program had actually been transferred out, leaving many thousands stranded in Mexico, where such migrants have faced 492 reported violent attacks since Biden’s inauguration.

Even this doesn’t get at the full number suffering, however, because numerous loopholes — migrants who missed MPP hearings due to violence or rampant violations of due process, for instance — exclude people who should be counted. Meanwhile, the formal end of the MPP program together with the continued enforcement of Title 42 means that, in practice, the Biden administration has all but shut the border to asylum seekers entirely, an outrageous and wildly illegal move.

To its credit, the press has been covering the issue. But in keeping with the general tenor of responses to Biden’s first hundred days, what should be a scandal has gotten far short of the wall-to-wall alarm and outraged accusations of racism than if Trump was the one doing it. Press outlets now tend to frame the administration’s continuation of Trump policy as “a complicated puzzle,” a “confounded” Biden valiantly trying to navigate the “conundrum” of policy and politics around immigration, and of well-meaning, pro-immigrant officials who have been “blindsided” and now face agonizing “moral dilemmas.” (Biden is somehow both a preternaturally wise, experienced, and skillful statesman, and a tragically overwhelmed everyman, depending on the issue).

The result has been some of the same, horrific outcomes of the Trump administration, only done in a less outwardly cruel way. Migrant families are still being separated, but they’re now “choosing” to do so, thanks to the perverse incentives created by Biden policy. And children and other migrants are still being held in what used to be referred to as “cages” or “concentration camps,” in conditions that are questionable at best.

Other policies have seen promises unambiguously broken. Having pledged during the campaign not to build “another foot” of the border wall, the physical symbol and manifestation of Trump’s racism, Biden is doing just that, having just seized a Texas family’s land as part of the effort, and with his review of the project a month over its due date with no decision. Or witness Biden’s decision to keep the refugee cap at Trump’s record-low of 15,000, which he was forced to backtrack on after widespread criticism.

Unfortunately for anyone interested in a just immigration policy, Biden’s other continuations of Trump policy haven’t been met with the same level of outrage and criticism. We’ll never know if the administration would have similarly reversed course in its face, as it did in that particular instance.

Everybody Loses

Biden’s immigration policy in his first hundred days carries with it several potential ramifications.

One is that for those ordinary members of the public who had looked at justified and accurate criticisms of Trump with suspicion and considered outrage over his policies to be mere partisan grandstanding, this will only further feed the sense that left-leaning criticism of immigration policy is disingenuous and not worth listening to. This unfortunately will be the logical conclusion for many who watched Barack Obama and now Biden largely get away with, and even receive lavish praise while carrying out, policies that were denounced as racist or fascist under Trump, however correct those denunciations might’ve been.

Another is what happened to the “war on terror” after Obama’s election, when, having campaigned on undoing George W. Bush’s excesses and illegalities in his prosecution of terrorists, Obama accepted and escalated many of them, permanently legitimating the once-controversial concept. Biden, similarly, had campaigned on reversing what was cast as an un-American and menacing policy direction, only to, at least so far, accept large parts of it, potentially setting it in bipartisan stone.

The good news is it’s only been one hundred days. Anyone interested in avoiding this state of affairs has plenty of time to push back.

Nevertheless, it remains ironic that on a host of issues that were supposed to set Trump horribly apart from broad swaths of the political establishment — from foreign policy, to the treatment of the press, to immigration, and others — there is less daylight between his administration and the current one than most decent-minded people would like to believe. Perhaps the word “revealing” is more appropriate.