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Immigration Takes Center Stage in Biden–Trump Rematch

Annie Pforzheimer

Annie Pforzheimer

Annie Pforzheimer is a retired career diplomat with the personal rank of Minister Counselor from the Department of State, a Senior Non-Resident Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, an Adjunct Professor at the City University of New York, and a public commentator and consultant on foreign policy issues.

Despite all sides of the US political spectrum agreeing that immigration is both important and in crisis, bipartisan reform legislation is unlikely before presidential and congressional elections in November 2024. Biden would use a second administration to fine-tune existing rules and continue a push for legislative fixes, while Trump would use all restrictive capabilities offered to the executive branch and block any reform. Out of fear that the outcome of this election will rest on his perceived inability to address the issue, the Biden administration may introduce new measures to control surges at the US–Mexico border in the short term. Compromise legislation reached in late 2023, but scuttled due to partisan politics, offers ideas for either a grand bargain or small improvements to the dire landscape. 

Dueling narratives

The numbers are undeniable, whatever the politics: apprehensions at the US–Mexico border have surged during the Biden administration, now topping two million people per year after an average of 500,000 a year from 2010–2020, with even more, uncounted, numbers who enter without being caught. Some of those apprehended are people subject to immediate deportation, but a growing number are those claiming asylum; these are allowed to enter the USA and wait years for a court hearing, which amounts to de facto permission to stay.

American flag and barbed wire, USA border

Although many differences in orientation exist between the Democratic and Republican parties’ candidates for president, immigration politics make it unlikely that there will be any liberalization of migration in the near term — to the contrary, both sides are espousing a tough rhetoric about tightening asylum processing and making other versions of immigration reform less likely. In ads and debates, the Republican Party paints the Biden administration as solely responsible for out-of-control border crossings. This election-year immigration narrative places almost all blame on the Biden administration’s allegedly overly hospitable policies. The Biden administration’s narrative is that it is relatively helpless in regaining control of the border without legislative reform, which has stalled for decades, and increased funding for border enforcement and judicial adjudications. The most recent attempt to address the problem was a bill that combined border control measures with funding for US support to Israel and Ukraine. Under this funding package, asylum seekers would have had to offer clear and convincing evidence to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers that they were in danger and that they faced the reasonable possibility of harm if they were returned to their country of origin. Donald Trump, possibly due to a belief that this issue is politically more helpful to his candidacy if it remains unsolved, lobbied members of Congress to block it.

Impact of a Biden re-election

The Biden administration has already taken multiple unilateral actions to try to stem the flow of migrants, starting in May 2023 when Covid-era restrictions were lifted. At that point the U.S. Department of Homeland Security introduced restrictions to make more migrants eligible for speedy deportation, but since numbers were so high that still meant thousands were released into the USA. Even more border restrictions are both possible and likely in 2024, ahead of the elections. For example, it is being widely reported that President Biden is considering executive action that could prevent people who cross illegally into the USA from claiming asylum. This may be met with outcries from the more progressive wing of his own party, as well as lawsuits, but there are some strong arguments for taking this step as cities become overwhelmed by asylees and the system shows processing delays of around five years or more. There are limits to what he can do simply through executive enforcement, particularly on the issue of asylum. He therefore is likely to press for legislative action in 2025, a slightly safer political period in the election cycle. The calculus of success will depend entirely on which party controls the House and Senate, however, and whether the border crisis has calmed.

Impact of a new Trump administration

Trump adherents are making no secret of the fact that they plan to re-impose and go beyond his administration’s tough 2017–2021 restrictions on asylum-seekers and other migrants, including measures such as family separations and detention of children. That said, efforts to enact blanket denials of the right to claim asylum will be countered by the legal requirements to allow asylum claims to proceed, which are nested within various US laws and likely backed up by lawsuits that would be filed immediately. Where he may have fuller scope is his professed intention to deport millions of people, potentially operationalized by Republican-controlled states’ National Guard forces given license to carry out this federal function. He will also be able to again threaten Mexico with trade interruptions if more is not done to curb immigrants and intending refugees who are traversing northwards to the border.

Roots of future compromise?

On a strategic level, a wide dialogue on immigration must take place to move the issue into a more rational assessment of US interests and values. For example, the racist scare tactic named the “replacement theory” posits an attack on white America. This must be met with a clear counterargument that immigration is the bedrock of US values and also of its economy, especially at a time of record low unemployment and an aging population. The longstanding belief that all asylum cases must be allowed entry, pending a legal process, in the face of current numbers of applicants must be swapped for practical and rapid assessment of the direst claims, and compliance by Mexico and other transit countries with their responsibility to protect would-be asylees.

Allies are engaged in pushing for this more rational discourse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a detailed report in February regarding the economic impact of refugees and asylees; while representing an initial cost to local, state, and federal governments on arrival, this population over time becomes highly productive and has had a positive net fiscal impact on the US economy (quantified at USD 123.8 billion over a 15-year period). Crucially, the US business community has for many years tried to make the case for greater support to investor visas and migration, tourism, and more qualified worker visas. Most recently, it argued (unsuccessfully) for passage of the border bill.

This ill-fated compromise legislation does offer, some experts argue, a blueprint for a future grand bargain on immigration or at least some fixes that could be worked into ongoing budget language. In particular, the massive backlog of asylum cases must be addressed by increased judicial and law enforcement personnel, which could happen without new legislation but would require billions of dollars in new funds. Language to allow more on-site adjudication of asylum claims, a key component of fixing the system, needs to be enshrined in law.

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