Recently, I predicted that former Vice President Joe Biden would quietly move away from his longstanding flirtation with restrictionist policies and tilt in a pro-immigration direction. The Democratic presidential contenders in general are scrambling to be seen as more friendly towards immigration, and given that Biden has made a career out of swinging with the wind like a "rusty weather vane", as Reason Editor at Large Matt Welch put it, it was only a matter of time before he "creak[ed] in the direction of prevailing winds."
That time arrived yesterday: Biden penned an op-ed in the Miami Herald positioning himself as a champion of immigrants whose polices will reflect "American values." But look past the highfalutin rhetoric and what you find is rank hypocrisy combined with the lamest reform agenda.
Biden condemned President Donald Trump's "morally bankrupt re-election strategy" that, Biden wrote, "relies on vilifying immigrants to score political points." But Biden forgot to mention that Trump, despite his best efforts, might not be able to match the lofty deportation record of the previous administration, in which Biden himself was second in command. Nor did Biden say a word about the 2012 Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, a nasty little Obama-era pilot program that I wrote about here. Under it, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in plainclothes and unmarked vans would park themselves outside Latino grocery stores, apartment buildings, parks, neighborhoods, and—on one occasion at least—a Bible Study group, and confront whomever they wished, demanding to know their immigration status. The ICE agents would handcuff and detain those they suspected—without a warrant or formal charges, much less allowing them a phone call and legal representation—and forcibly fingerprint them with a high-tech mobile unit. They'd then run the fingerprints through federal databases, a process that would sometimes take hours, during which time the detainees couldn't leave to pick up their children or get to their jobs. All those flagged as undocumented, even if they were not criminals and therefore not the program's primary targets, would be dispatched immediately to detention facilities to await deportation.
Biden also harrumphed that "build the wall is a slogan divorced from reality" that "won't stop the flow of illegal narcotics or human smugglers." Yet these concerns apparently did not enter his head when he voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. That law cost federal taxpayers close to $2.5 billion and pushed migrants precisely into the arms of "human smugglers." That particular wall also redirected migrants into more remote and treacherous routes, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of men, women, and children.
Biden's Miami Herald piece also expressed support for bringing Dreamers, referring to those who were brought to the country as minors without proper authorization and have since grown up as Americans, "out of the shadows through fair treatment, not ugly threats." But would he offer them a path to citizenship, which would prevent future threats from future administrations, or would he offer mere legalization? Biden declined to say. And what about their parents—whom Obama had tried to protect via the Deferred Action for Parental Arrivals program—and the other 6 or 7 million unauthorized immigrants peacefully working, living, and raising families in the United States? Once again, Biden's silence was deafening.
Biden also lamented the fact that Trump's efforts to yank "Temporary Protected Status (TPS)" from immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan has "injected unnecessary uncertainty into the lives of thousands of families." TPS refers to a program under which folks fleeing natural disasters or acute political turmoil are given permission to live and work in America until the situation in their native country has improved.
Biden's complaint here is correct. And as president, he would presumably reinstate TPS for these people. But that of course won't protect them from a future president who wants to remove this status. To avoid that possibility, Congress would need to rewrite the law and hand TPS holders a path to permanent residency. Would President Biden support that effort? Mum's the word!
In his Miami Herald op-ed, Biden also declared that our "asylum system needs to be improved, but the answer is to streamline and strengthen it so that it benefits legitimate claims of those fleeing persecution, while reducing potential for abuse." But precisely how does he plan to achieve this "streamlining and strengthening"? Trump has insisted that Congress needs to close the loopholes in the asylum law that make it impossible for him to cage asylum seekers with children for more than 20 days. Biden doesn't exactly say what he thinks of this; instead, he brandishes the "bipartisan effort to address the root causes" that he led as vice president to prevent Central American migrants from fleeing by "improving security, reducing inequality and expanding economic opportunity" in their home countries.
But these are just empty words that won't do anything for those stuck in those countries now. The most effective way to help them and alleviate the strain on the asylum program—not to mention the border generally—would be to create a proper guest worker program for Central Americans. As I've noted previously, Central American migrants have a mix of economic and security reasons for fleeing. But the United States' current guest worker program is so restrictive that, regardless of the motive, these Central Americans have no other choice but to take their chances with the asylum program, further straining border resources. Would Biden push such reforms as president? He doesn't say.
And while Julian Castro, the former Democratic mayor of San Antonio, has actually suggested a concrete if modest step to decriminalize immigration—the real "root cause" of the border crisis—Biden only mutters about enhancing "border security." Castro wants to eliminate Section 1325 of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, which made illegal entry a criminal rather than a civil violation and handed Trump a powerful excuse—and tool—to crackdown on border crossers.
One reason Biden is so silent about this aspect of the problem is that he does not want to draw attention to the role he played as a senator in helping President Bill Clinton enact the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. That law not only further criminalized immigration but also upped the penalties for unauthorized entry. It required mandatory detention and "expedited removal" of criminal aliens involved in "aggravated felonies" without so much as a hearing or any consideration of circumstances.
Furthermore, under that 1996 law, the definition of "aggravated felony" was expanded to include such things as drug possession, driving under the influence, and illegal re-entry. The law also basically eviscerated due process for immigrants (even legal ones accused of crimes) and created a criminal–immigration-detention–deportation pipeline that Trump is now using.
Biden rightfully takes Trump to task for calling immigrants "animals" and creating "horrifying scenes at the border of kids being kept in cages, tear-gassing asylum seekers, ripping children from their mothers' arms." But if Biden wants to be taken seriously, he should also take himself to task and admit his role in paving the way for the tactics that Trump is now using.
Otherwise, Americans will be forgiven if they see him not as a centrist with gravitas—but as an empty suit in high dudgeon.