Politics / June 26, 2024

With His Immigration Policy, Biden Capitulates to the Right’s Racist Agenda

Trump’s strategy has been clear: stoke fear about immigration to secure more votes. Biden shouldn’t be following in his footsteps.

Silky Shah
Joe Biden spaeaks during a campaign rally at Pearson Community Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 4, 2024.

Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Pearson Community Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 4, 2024.


(Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

It’s no surprise that immigration is the top issue Donald Trump plans to focus on in Thursday’s first presidential debate. Since 2015, when he first announced his presidential run, Trump’s campaign strategy has been clear: stoke fear about immigration to secure more votes. In 2020 President Joe Biden promised to differentiate himself from the cruel policies and rhetoric of the previous administration. But recent actions taken by the president suggest he’s simply following in Trump’s footsteps.

Earlier this month, Biden issued an executive order to shut down asylum at the US-Mexico border. Around the same time Immigration and Customs Enforcement indicated its plan to build more detention centers across the United States, and the Department of Justice announced a ramp-up of immigration-related prosecutions at the border, which were the basis of Trump’s 2018 family separation policy. These callous moves are a cynical capitulation to the right’s racist agenda, which scapegoats migrants and stokes a misguided, crime panic on immigration to distract from the root of the real problems people are facing.

For decades, politicians of both parties have seized upon moral panics to score points with voters, often resulting in policies that extend state power and social control by the government. The fearmongering over immigration during this election cycle is reminiscent of the 1988 election in which George H.W. Bush secured victory over Michael Dukakis by campaigning as “tough on crime.” Since that election, both parties have understood the potency of the crime panic narrative, which presents prisons as the panacea to social, political, and economic problems of our time. After a slew of harsh legislation in the 1990s the United States became the world’s leading incarcerator, with over 2 million people locked up in prisons and jails.

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Today we see both parties embracing a similar tactic over the border. Harsh immigration policies have resulted in violent conditions for migrants, leading to thousands of deaths and the destabilization of border communities. With these recent moves from Biden and federal law enforcement agencies we can anticipate even more dire conditions for those seeking to migrate and further dehumanization of immigrant communities in the US.

Things don’t have to be this way. Just a few years ago uprisings for Black lives and mobilizations for immigrant justice challenged the prevailing wisdom around mass incarceration and mass deportation. Under Trump, ordinary people and politicians alike were more willing to examine the racism of the criminal legal and immigration systems. As many critics of mass incarceration have pointed out, there is little evidence linking higher prison (or detention) capacity with lower “crime” rates. The system disproportionately scoops up poor, Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, with Black people incarcerated at a rate six times that of white people. It does not make anyone safer and instead reflects decades of government policy that prioritizes punishment over care.

During the Trump years, states passed bills blocking ICE from targeting immigrants through the criminal legal system, and fewer people were deported. And in response to the uprisings for Black lives, communities across the country demanded divestment from policing and incarceration and investment in education, health care, and social safety nets. Fast forward a couple years later, and we see that the combined right-wing backlash to the 2020 protests and to pro-immigrant sanctuary policies has led Democrats to retreat and succumb to the racial panic narrative sold by the Republicans.

Rather than confronting extremist immigration policies with humane and compassionate leadership, President Biden and the Democrats have ceded rhetorical and political grounds to anti-immigrant forces. In doing so, they are reinforcing the idea that immigration is a public safety issue, and immigrants arriving should be met with law enforcement, instead of aid. This is a crucial mistake and contributes to the right’s xenophobia and Trump’s electoral campaign.

Biden’s latest action, last week, to provide relief to some undocumented immigrants married to US citizens is a welcome move. But it also comes after three long years of broken promises to immigrants, and on the heels of Biden’s plan to gut asylum protections and ramp up enforcement. While it could protect some half a million immigrants from deportation, the political play to garner goodwill from Latinx voters prior to the election is an obvious trade-off between relief for a small portion of undocumented immigrants and hardening the border to deter future migration. The Biden administration’s moves fall into a familiar pattern whereby steps towards immigration reform come at the expense of more criminalization and more border militarization.

It is worth remembering that people have always migrated. Immigration is driven by endless human causes such as labor, family relationships, and seeking refuge. Creating barriers to migration doesn’t prevent people from needing or wanting to migrate to seek a better life or reunite with family. The barriers only make the migration process more desperate and perilous.

If Democrats truly want to challenge racist and xenophobic immigration laws and policies and establish a fair and humane immigration system, they must stop treating immigration as an issue of public safety or national security. To differentiate himself from Trump at Thursday’s debate, Biden needs to stop falling into the right’s trap on immigration and instead uphold principles of refuge and basic human rights. The sense of scarcity fueling anti-immigrant sentiment is driven by rampant and widening social inequality. Rather than spending billions of dollars every year targeting and incarcerating immigrants, Biden should promote investments in real needs like housing, education, and healthcare.

Right-wing forces have made their agenda clear: They will continue to uphold white supremacy by scapegoating communities of color and migrants, and have no interest in addressing peoples’ real needs. For those like President Biden who claim to oppose the right’s agenda, it is critical to challenge the underlying racism and misdirection of these moral panics and work toward real solutions grounded in the dignity and well-being of all people. We’ll be watching his next move closely on Thursday.

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Silky Shah

Silky Shah is the executive director of Detention Watch Network, a national coalition building power to abolish immigration detention in the US. She is also the author of the recently published book, Unbuild Walls: Why Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition (Haymarket Books, 2024).

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