"We made a mistake," Joe Biden said of his former boss's immigration policies during the final presidential debate in October 2020. "It took too long to get it right. I'll be president of the United States, not vice president of the United States."
While Donald Trump may have implemented the most cruel and aggressively anti-immigration policy of any modern president, his predecessor's record was nothing to brag about either. President Barack Obama's government deported more people than any other administration in history, enlisted local police departments to assist the feds in carrying out immigration raids, and built the chain-link holding pens that became the defining image of Trump's inhumane "zero tolerance" family separation policy. Restoring some semblance of mercy to U.S. immigration policy won't be easy.
Obama used an executive order, rather than working with a divided Congress, to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shielded residents who came to the U.S. as children from deportation. Trump rescinded that order while using the same unilateral approach to implement more than 400 other immigration policy changes, according to a November report from the Migration Policy Institute. He slashed refugee pathways, forced asylum seekers to "remain in Mexico" while their cases were processed, and allowed the Justice Department to prosecute good Samaritans as criminals for providing food, water, and shelter to immigrants crossing the most dangerous section of the U.S.-Mexico border.
What can President Joe Biden do to improve this mess? He has said he will reinstate DACA, deprioritize deportations of immigrants without criminal records, and allow asylum applicants to enter the U.S. while they await hearings. He says much of that will happen in his first six months. But immigration policy experts are skeptical that Biden can quickly or easily undo Trump's handiwork, let alone fix the larger system.
"The majority of the Trump administration immigration reforms will be difficult to address immediately," Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney who worked in the Obama administration, told Politico in December, "either because of legal rule-making barriers, practical realities on the ground, or a lack of bandwidth given how many priorities the Biden administration has in contrast to the singular focus on immigration" that the Trump administration had.
Another obstacle is the COVID-19 pandemic, which the Trump administration cited to justify further restricting immigration. While the ongoing crisis has bought Biden a bit of time to calculate how he will handle a post-pandemic influx of immigrants, it's unclear whether he will continue to prosecute border crossings as criminal offenses, as both Obama and Trump did.