Joe Biden’s New Immigration Policy Is a Boon to Right-Wing Xenophobia

With its new immigration policy, the Biden administration isn’t even breaking from Trump-era anti-immigrant policies, much less charting a new, humane course for immigrants and refugees.

Joe Biden speaks to the press in Mexico City on January 10, 2023. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration’s newly announced immigration policy represents concessions to the white nationalist spin machine and the extremist contortions of Republican politicians who are aware that claiming that they are handling a “crisis” at the US-Mexico border reliably stokes their base and gets out the vote. Contradicting Biden’s promises to reverse “senseless and cruel” Trump-era policies, these policies punish migrants and betray the work of immigrant and civil rights organizations to elect him.

The new plan marks a decisive shift in how the United States manipulates migrants in service of national security. It consolidates an immigration system that ignores the particularities of migration from different nations, replacing a residual, Cold War cartography based on the State Department’s interpretation of international relations with expensive, hypermilitarized borders throughout the Americas and an almost complete abandonment of the international laws governing the admission of refugees and asylum seekers.

The new plan includes expanding the controversial Trump-era Title 42 to migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haiti, excluding asylum seekers from nations like Cuba and Venezuela, which the State Department has long considered hostile to US interests. Instead, the policy favors white, European migrants. This plan denies asylum to anyone entering the country between official ports of entry on the US-Mexico border, as well as to anyone who traveled through another country but did not seek asylum there. And it imposes use of the CBP-One app, with its potential for surveillance and abuse of personal data, on migrants who do manage to cross into the United States.

Based on the brute force provided by expensive border militarization, this policy consolidation responds to the xenophobia of the right-wing spin machine, which endlessly broadcasts that an ongoing invasion by “illegals,” threatens America. Essentially, the Biden plan allows the white nationalist spin machine to drive immigration policy.

US immigration policy has always been imperial policy, mirroring global landscape of alliances and enmities between the United States and other countries. Through this map, the US government assesses political risk and economic benefit, assigning priority to different migrants based on the location of their nations of origin on the map. This imperial cartography has always existed in tension with humanitarian rhetoric and advocacy claims about the rights of migrants.

During the Cold War, US immigration prerogatives favored people fleeing communist or communist-adjacent nations, terming their migration to be politically motivated and rewarding them with refugee status. Those abandoning regimes deemed friendly to US interests, however brutal, were designated economic migrants and generally refused entry. This Cold War regime gave lip service to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) protocols governing the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, to which the United States was a signatory. It was revived under Ronald Reagan and continued undead long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Under this Cold War regime, migrants fleeing regimes deemed hostile to US interests, such as Cuba and Nicaragua, were often admitted as political refugees. But the same administrations which backed sending aid, arms, and military advisors to repressive regimes in Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras waged war against migrants from these countries, allowing only a very few to enter as asylum seekers.

With the militarization of border enforcement in the 1990s and 2000s, migrants from Central America and the Caribbean have increasingly been met with militarized border enforcement at the US-Mexico border as well as, with the Merida Initiative since 2008, Mexico. As border militarization has increased, the distinction among migrants from different nations has become less important than the Department of Homeland Security’s explicit mandate to stop the entry of poor black and brown people.

US-imposed blockades and sanctions create the circumstances that lead to migration from these four nations. By definition, an economic blockade or embargo seeks to make life unlivable for civilian denizens of a particular nation. By turning up the heat on daily life, economic sanctions attempt to inspire opposition to the government targeted by the State Department. Food and medical supplies become scarce, prices rise, and it can become difficult for many to find work, as the economy suffers the consequences of a lack of access to overseas markets. For many people, the circumstances resulting from economic blockades lead them to make the difficult decision to leave home.

For over sixty years, the United States has imposed an economic blockade against Cuba. Originating in US hostility toward the Cuban Revolution, the blockade prohibited the extension of foreign aid to Cuba and authorized the president to economically embargo the island nation. President John F. Kennedy’s executive order inaugurating the blockade banned the importation of Cuban goods and the exportation of goods to Cuba. Subsequently, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1963, the blockade extended to include travel to or from the country.

While different administrations have toughened or lightened sanctions against Cuba, the tendency over the past sixty years has been to attempt to literally starve the Cuban regime into submission, hoping that the protests emanating from the lack of food and other supplies caused by the blockade might topple it. Along with these hopes has come a historically warm reception to those attempting to leave Cuba because, in US terms, these migrants are legible as political refugees fleeing communism.

But this reception has changed over time. Despite ongoing official hostility toward the Cuban regime, the warm reception of Cubans attempting to leave it chilled substantially after the Mariel boatlifts of the early 1980s. Historian Kristina Shull documents how the arrival of these migrants, along with Central Americans and Haitians fleeing war and despotism in the same period, provoked a new approach to deal with migration as part of global counterinsurgency and “war on drugs” strategies.

Responding to Marielito and Haitian refugee “crises,” the Reagan administration deemed these migrants as criminal threats with the capacity to undermine US political stability. The notion of a threat, in turn, justified increasing militarization of the US-Mexico border and immigration policy in general. For the first time in US history, Congress under Reagan allowed the military to aid border enforcement. The Reagan administration also initiated a policy of preemptive detention and deportation of migrants.

Historian Carl Lindskoog illuminates how this policy of preventive detention mobilized racism and xenophobia against Haitian migrants, creating the roots of the present immigration detention-industrial complex. Private corporations like the GEO Group, CoreCivic, LaSalle Corrections, and the Management and Training Corporation (MTC) profit mightily from these practices. These prison corporations are bipartisan political donors, which helps explain the expansion of immigrant detention under supposedly pro-immigrant, Democratic administrations.

The transformation of policy toward Nicaraguan migrants is indicative of the shift consolidated by the new Biden policy. During the 1980s, the United States created and funded the Contra paramilitary organization to undermine the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) regime, which came to power in 1979. In 1985, Reagan proclaimed the Contras to be the “moral equivalent of the founding fathers.” Consonant with Cold War policy, in which migrants from leftist regimes were considered as deserving political refugees, Nicaraguans fleeing the postwar devastation of their country were welcomed in disproportionate numbers, compared to others from Central America and the Caribbean. But since the FSLN returned to political power in 2006, Nicaraguan refugees fleeing the increasingly repressive regime have lost favor, as indicated by their recent inclusion in Title 42 deportation provisions.

In 2013, the Obama administration imposed an economic blockade on the newly elected Nicolás Maduro government in Venezuela, resulting in economic stagnation, food, and energy shortages since that time. As the Trump administration intensified these sanctions, determined to bring the Maduro government down, mortality in Venezuela increased by 31 percent; some estimates place the responsibility for forty thousand deaths on the effects of the blockade. Yet Venezuelans fleeing economic devastation in their country do not receive a warm welcome at the US-Mexico border.

The extension of Title 42 to migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela broadcasts the consolidation of a lucrative regime of militarized borders, deportation, and detention, what Shull describes as a “detention empire.” This regime violates international refugee law; it benefits private corporations over people and the public interest. The only just response is to oppose this regime, to tear down all the borders and walls that divide us.