‘Immigration Is a Gateway Issue’ — and the Contrast Between Trump and Biden Is Stark

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Activist Charlie Castenada stands inside a mock cage as part of a protest held on the steps of Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 9, 2020. Organized by Refuse Fascism, demonstrators demanded an end to the Trump administration's “assault on immigrants and sanctuary cities.” (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

President Trump was asked at last week’s debate about his policy separating thousands of migrant families at the border — and how the more than 500 remaining children whose parents can't be located would ever be reunited with them. He didn’t answer the question, then tried to shift attention to an Obama-era border processing center where kids were held in chain-link fenced enclosures, asking repeatedly: “Who built the cages, Joe?”

The six minutes of the debate that NBC moderator Kristen Welker dedicated to immigration that night marked one of the first times the topic has come up in any kind of substantial way during the presidential campaign. That’s striking, since Trump has made restricting immigration a dominant theme of his presidency.

And for voters in California, where one in four residents was born in another country and immigrants are integral to almost every community and to the state’s economy, U.S. immigration policy —and the president’s stance toward immigrants — deeply matters.

Ever since Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, saying Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,” he has linked his political fortunes to the idea that immigrants are a threat to the United States and a drain on its resources.

And with laser focus, his administration has pushed through more than 400 executive actions on immigration, ranging from sweeping policy directives, such as the travel ban aimed at citizens of mostly Muslim countries, to little-noticed rule changes, including one expanding DNA collection from people in immigration detention.

The contrast between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden could hardly be starker.

The former vice president has pledged to reverse Trump’s immigration restrictions and raise the cap on refugee admissions to 125,000 (from Trump’s recently announced 15,000 — a record low). Biden says he will push legislation to create “a roadmap to citizenship” for the country’s nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants. And he talks about establishing a “fair and humane” immigration system, that will “enforce our laws without targeting communities, violating due process or tearing apart families.”

Biden also pledged on Thursday that, if elected, he would set up a task force focused on reuniting families separated under the Trump administration.

But in a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, as well as protests for racial justice and an onslaught of fierce climate change-driven wildfires and hurricanes, immigration has taken a back seat.

Some observers believe Trump has also downplayed the issue because his policies are not popular. In a commentary published earlier this month in the liberal-leaning American Prospect magazine, executive editor David Dayen said, “Trump’s full-barreled rhetorical assault on immigrants during the 2018 midterms led to an historic defeat. This year, he’s put that talk aside.”

A recent Gallup poll found that more than three-fourths of Americans believe immigration is a good thing for the country. And a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies Poll from 2019 found that support for immigration is even stronger among Californians, with 82% of the state's voters saying immigrants make the U.S. a better place to live.

“There’s overwhelming support for a path for undocumented people to stay in the country, overwhelming support for DACA, overwhelming opposition to building a wall,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, who runs a monthly statewide public opinion survey.

The attention on immigration in the most recent presidential debate “raised the profile of the issue again and reminded California voters of what the candidates’ positions are, and whose positions are closer to theirs,” Baldassare said.

But in the face of the pandemic, he added, immigration is a low-priority issue for most voters this year.

Yet for Latino voters, it remains among a handful of top issues. A national poll this month, conducted by Latino Decisions, asked Latino voters to name the issues they felt were of greatest importance for the next president to address. After listing the coronavirus, the cost of health care and jobs, respondents pointed to issues of immigration reform and protecting immigrants’ rights.

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“Immigration is a gateway issue, a signal to me of whether you think my family and I should be in this country or not, and deserve full rights or not,” said Lisa García Bedolla, a UC Berkeley political scientist and dean of the university’s graduate division, whose parents were refugees from Cuba.

In the days before last week’s debate, the president’s controversial family separation policy was again back in the headlines. A status report to the federal judge overseeing the reunification of thousands of migrant families revealed that the parents of 545 children could not be located, despite search teams going door-to-door through Central American cities and towns.

Additionally, court records show that contact hasn’t even been attempted with the parents of another 526 children separated as early as 2017. On top of that, at least 1,142 more children were taken from their parents at the border after the judge ordered the practice halted, although, so far, they are not protected by the lawsuit.

García Bedolla contrasted what she called Trump’s lack of empathy for the children taken from their parents (“They are in facilities that are so clean,” he said during the debate) with Biden’s outrage (“It violates every notion of who we are as a country.”).

“So immigration becomes a moral question,” she said. “Biden was correct: It’s about who we are ... To what extent is immigration a reflection of our core values? And the place where we’ve gotten over the past four years is in violation of those values.”

The president’s apparent disdain for many immigrants was also in evidence at the debate when he said, falsely, that fewer than 1% of migrants arrested at the border and released with hearing dates actually appear in court, adding that only “those with the lowest IQ, they might come back.”

In fact, court data shows that more than 80% of migrant families released from immigration custody attended all their court hearings as of last year — and among those with lawyers, 99% attended.

Though many of Trump’s policies have been challenged in court, the relentless pace of immigration restrictions over the past four years — mostly accomplished through executive actions — has transformed immigration policy.

The Trump administration has:

  • Effectively shut down asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border;
  • Taken aim at local government “sanctuary” policies;
  • Created bureaucratic hurdles to legal immigration;
  • Made it harder for foreign students and skilled workers to get visas;
  • Established a financial means test for legal immigrants seeking green cards;
  • Attempted to end the deportation protections for DACA recipients ;
  • Spent billions of dollars to fortify the fence on the border;
  • Curtailed the independence of immigration judges;
  • And — until the pandemic — locked up record numbers of people in immigration detention (an average of 55,000 a day in August 2019).

And beginning this spring, the administration used the coronavirus crisis as a rationale to expel asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants at the border without screening them for fears of persecution, as required by law. The executive order, which relies on a 1944 public health statute, has turned away tens of thousands of people.

If Trump is re-elected, some observers believe his immigration adviser Stephen Miller has a raft of executive orders drafted to further restrict immigration, including policies that may have been considered too extreme for a candidate for re-election.

Biden’s immigration plan, by contrast, proposes to:

  • Reform temporary work visas to better protect U.S. and foreign workers;
  • Expand protections for undocumented immigrants who report labor violations;
  • Restore DACA protections and propose a permanent path to citizenship for Dreamers;
  • Return to Obama-era enforcement priorities that target serious convicted criminals for deportation;
  • Increase oversight and professional standards for immigration detention, and end the use of private prisons;
  • Invest in immigrant integration efforts, including naturalization and English instruction;
  • Double the number of immigration judges to tackle the 1 million-case backlog in immigration courts;
  • And address the root causes of migration by fostering economic development and the rule of law in Central American countries.

Some of Biden’s immigration proposals — most notably, creating a path to citizenship for the country’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants — will require congressional action, which isn’t likely unless Democrats regain control of the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, simply undoing Trump’s new rules and executive actions could take years of work.

And if Biden is elected, immigration is not the first or only issue that will compete for his attention, notes immigration scholar and UCLA law professor Hiroshi Motomura.

“As a practical matter, a Biden presidency would begin with all kinds of demands to do as much as possible, as soon as possible,” Motomura said. “Immigration initiatives will compete with health care and all kinds of other things.”

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Given the urgency of the economic crisis, the pandemic and other priorities, Biden’s pledge on the debate stage to introduce a legalization bill in his first 100 days in office took some immigration observers by surprise.

“Immigrant activists have been lobbying his team for many months, saying that he needed to take a bold position, largely to signal his moving away from Obama-era policies,” which included 3 million deportations, said García Bedolla. “The people I know in the immigrant rights movement weren’t sure that was going to happen.”

García Bedolla noted that President Obama also promised an immigration reform bill in his first 100 days, only to focus his attention on recovery from the Great Recession and health care reform.

“People decided to give him that political wiggle room and, at the end, immigrant rights folks were very disappointed,” she said. “So people’s willingness to get in line [if Biden is elected] is going to be much less. It’s a very different moment. And after four years of really draconian immigration policy, people are very clear, we cannot wait.”

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