How Biden Might Change Trump’s Immigration Policies

Long before the U.S. tightened its borders to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, President Donald Trump set about reshaping America’s immigration system with a nationalist and isolationist bent. Promises to crack down on illegal immigration and erect a wall along the Mexican border formed the centerpiece of his election campaign in 2016. His Democratic challenger in the Nov. 3 election, former Vice President Joe Biden, embraces immigration as fundamental to the national character in a country where 99% of citizens trace their roots to somewhere else.

1. What is Trump’s issue with immigration?

Trump says “illegal immigrants” — people without the legal right to be or remain in the U.S., of whom there are an estimated 11 million ­ — “drain” government resources, are prone to commit violent crimes and take jobs from citizens. As for legal immigration, Trump argues that the system that regulates it — which is based largely on family ties and ensures immigrants come from a diverse array of nations — attracts undesirable newcomers, including, as he famously put it, from “shithole countries,” such as Haiti, El Salvador and nations in Africa. He expressed a preference for immigrants from Norway.

2. Is he right?

Some economists say illegal immigration reduces work and wages for low-skill workers, especially Black and Hispanic Americans; others challenge the argument and the data behind it. A number of studies have concluded that migrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans. But Trump cites anecdotes such as the fatal shooting of a 32-year-old woman, Kate Steinle, in San Francisco in 2015, by an undocumented immigrant, a Mexican national with a criminal record. On legal immigration, scholars point out that the emphasis on family ties that Trump criticizes has been a guiding consideration since the decades when Europeans, including Trump’s own ancestors, were the ones flocking to America.

3. What changes has Trump made?

It’s a long list. In part by diverting funds approved for other purposes, the Trump administration has built about 300 miles (and counting) of tall steel fencing along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, mostly as upgrades to existing barriers. It barred immigration by citizens of 12 countries, eight with Muslim majorities, on the grounds that their governments don’t share enough information about potential criminals or terrorists. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their families, before an outcry forced an end to that practice. Trump extended waiting times for residency and citizenship applications and expanded the “public charge rule” that denies immigrants legal-resident status if they rely on public assistance such as food stamps or Medicaid. He temporarily suspended immigration into the U.S. in response to the pandemic. He ordered the end of a program that allows so-called Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — to stay and work in the U.S. (Courts have stalled enforcement of that order.) And Trump cracked down on America’s asylum policy toward migrants from Central America claiming to face persecution at home.

4. Does the U.S. no longer grant asylum?

A change in rules made migrants eligible for asylum in the U.S. only if they first apply for sanctuary, where available, in a third country en route to America. Another change prohibited applicants for asylum from staying in the U.S. while their claims are pending, sending them to wait in Mexico. (The rules changes have been challenged in federal court.) As for refugees, whom the U.S. defines as those who’ve applied for sanctuary from outside the country, Trump capped the number to be admitted in 2020 at 18,000; the target set in the year before he came into office was 110,000.

5. What more does Trump want to do?

He’s proposed reshaping legal immigration by adopting a system similar to those used by Australia and Canada, under which applicants are admitted based on points for having a valuable skill, an advanced education or a plan to create jobs. Trump would end the diversity visa lottery, which admits people from countries underrepresented in the immigrant pool, such as Botswana and Malaysia. He wants to limit the number of immigration visas granted to family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents — beneficiaries of what he calls “chain migration.” But these changes would require the approval of Congress, which hasn’t passed a major immigration law since 1986, largely because of divisions between the two major political parties.

6. What would Biden do differently?

His plan calls for undoing Trump’s country-specific bans, Trump’s expansion of the public charge rule and Trump’s new restrictions on asylum seekers and refugees. Biden says he would stop spending federal money to expand the U.S.-Mexico border wall and direct funds instead toward “smart border enforcement efforts, like investments in improving screening infrastructure at our ports of entry.” He pledges to restore protections for the Dreamers, put in place when he was vice president under Barack Obama, and to create a pathway to citizenship for those living in the U.S. illegally.

7. What do Americans think of immigration?

Polls suggest Americans generally have a more generous view toward immigrants than Trump does. But opinions divide along partisan lines, and for those who lean toward Trump, immigration is a galvanizing issue. In a Gallup poll released in July, half of Democrats said immigration should be increased, while only 13% of Republicans expressed that view.

Published: 25 September 2020

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