Be Better: Biden’s Challenge to Raise the Bar on Immigration Policy

Nov 30, 2020 | Immigration


During the 2020 election cycle much of President-elect Joe Biden’s appeal to millions of voters focused less on their common ideological ground and more on one simple thing: He was not Donald Trump. 

However, now that Biden has been elected, this stance will not satisfy those attempting to hold him accountable throughout the four years of his presidency. Immigration is one of the major issues where voters are looking at Biden for more.

Biden has expressed interest in attempting to unite all facets of the Democratic party, however his history as vice president under the “deporter-in-chief” does not bode well for him. Immigration activists have condemned former President Barack Obama’s catastrophic history as the administration with the most deportations, especially during his last days in office. The Obama administration’s defense was that it was focusing on the removal of criminals rather than the work-place raids that were common under the Bush administration. But this defense is unlikely to hold for a Biden administration.

Despite Obama’s negative record with immigrant populations, it does not compare to the Trump administration’s harmful effect on the perception of immigrants in the U.S., as well as the increase in physical incarcerations, often for individuals with no prior criminal history. However, this does not automatically mean that Biden’s administration will be given a free pass. Biden has made a lot of promises around immigration, including taking urgent action to undo Trump’s damage and reclaim American values, modernizing the American immigration system, welcoming immigrants in our communities, reasserting America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees, tackling the root causes of irregular migration, and implementing effective border screenings. Even though the Biden-Harris transition team has discussed immigration as a top issue, it has a wide array of top priorities to focus on, including the global pandemic, especially as numbers continue to rise in the United States. To live up to its campaign promises, the Biden-Harris administration will have to ensure that immigration issues do not get lost in the shuffle. 

Biden’s first move as a president-elect who has vowed to reform the immigration system was to nominate Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Department of Homeland Security. Mayorkas would be the first Latino to lead the department and has been seen as a shimmer of hope for stabilizing the department. Along with this nomination, Biden has also vowed to roll back the countless number of presidential proclamations that have restricted and limited the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, green-card holders, and guest-worker visas including H, J, and L visas. The new administration will have the opportunity to both rescind and enact any necessary new policies during its first 100 days, a pledge that it has already taken. This transition comes as researchers and analysts have already demonstrated the benefits that immigrants provide to a growing economy, going as far as anticipating that providing documented status for unauthorized immigrants would increase GDP growth by 0.33 percentage points. It has been demonstrated that immigration creates a faster-growing and thriving economy, it is now up to the Biden administration to decide on how it will proceed.   

It is also likely that due to the historically low Hispanic voter turnout for Democrats during the 2020 election, Biden feels pressure to mobilize this group by appealing to voters through immigration reform. In the short term, Biden has acknowledged that he will be pushing for another pandemic relief plan. This time, however, he will be sure to include financial relief for non-citizens, as well as access to COVID-19 testing and treatment. Long term, his office has acknowledged that immigration reform is an uphill battle on Capitol Hill. Biden has a history of being able to work across the aisle and mobilize his base when needed, but comprehensive, long-term immigration reform will not be popular among Republicans. But Biden has demonstrated that he is determined to prove himself to a diverse group of Hispanic voters that has historically been both overlooked and grouped together despite its diversity. Democrats know that immigration, and specifically reform that paves a way to citizenship for undocumented residents, will be a large topic for the next election. As such, they have crafted recommendations to address issues for the spectrum of their voters. It is clear that regardless of what gets done and what does not, it will be a balancing act for Biden to please his base while protecting national security interests. 

Biden stated during his victory speech that he plans on being a president for all Americans. He understands the importance of conserving the party’s hold in the White House, but his administration will also be setting the groundwork for the reform that was promised during the campaign. It will be a fine line he will have to tread to keep both his promises to bring reform as well as to represent all Americans. One thing is clear: the first term of the Biden-Harris administration is sure to bring changes. 

Featured image from Unsplash.


  • Lennet Penate

    Lennet Peñate is a PPJ Resident Editor and second-year Master of Public Policy and Administration student at American University. She attended the University of Maryland, College Park, where she graduated with a degree in sociology and a minor in law and society. Currently, Lennet works at the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C. In her job, she gets to continue learning with others passionate about immigration and policy reform. In her free time, she enjoys reading a good book, road-tripping, arguing with her cat, and doing yoga. After graduating, she hopes to continue working in the non-profit field, focusing on policy reform.

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