President Donald Trump likes to win. As his time in the Oval Office comes to an end today, there's at least one accolade he can confidently claim: He has instituted some of the most inhumane immigration policies of any modern president. From separating families at the border as part of a "zero-tolerance" policy, to weaponizing immigrants' legal status for political power, to frivolously pulling visas without explanation or justification, to zeroing in on Good Samaritans, to hiring a ruthless nativist as his primary policy architect, Trump leaves Washington with a record that should draw the ire of anyone who cares about basic freedoms.
But what about President-elect Joe Biden, whose former boss, President Barack Obama, earned the moniker "deporter in chief" for his record-setting focus on expelling immigrants?
He promises to be better. The incoming president has constructed the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would provide immigrants with a five-year path to a green card and a subsequent three-year path to citizenship if they meet a set of obligations, including passing a background check and paying taxes. In order to disincentivize a rush to the border, the bill requires that recipients have lived in the U.S. since January 1, 2021.
On border security, Biden says he will cease construction of enhanced border barriers and instead will hone in on technology to "to expedite screening and enhance the ability to identify narcotics and other contraband at every land, air, and sea port of entry," the administration notes in a press release.
Biden will also immediately move to reverse restrictions on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the policy that provides work permits and deportation protection to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children through no fault of their own. Trump initially sought to terminate the program, but after failing in the courts pivoted to curtailing it instead.
Yet although DACA has widespread bipartisan support, it was always on precarious footing since Obama implemented it via executive order. Biden's plan will reportedly provide the 640,000 immigrants who qualify with an opportunity to apply for a green card, although his administration's press release did not allude to that. He will further move to rescind Trump's travel ban on 13 countries via executive action.
A significant move that will get less attention: Biden will restrict who Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can arrest and deport, an effort initially put in place by Obama but overturned by Trump. Deportations for immigrants without criminal records will likely be deprioritized in favor of those who actually present a threat.
He has also intimated that he will work to end the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy, which kept a migrant from entering the United States while their asylum case wound its way through the courts. That will be a lengthier endeavor. The program was "a disaster from the start and has led to a humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico," said Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, "but putting the new policy into practice will take time."
In that vein, the newly minted president will seek to focus on addressing the root causes of why so many Central American migrants are flooding the U.S. border, though it's hard to see how the result of such efforts will yield more productive results than, say, regime change attempts abroad. Pouring American taxpayer dollars into those countries is a dubious solution, namely because it doesn't work.
"We made a mistake," Biden said during October's presidential debate, referencing Obama's immigration approach. "It took too long to get it right. I'll be president of the United States, not vice president of the United States." In a very short time, he will indeed be president, and time will tell if he gets it right.