Disembodied Borders: The Fallacy of Immigration Under Biden – Harvard Political Review

Kids in cages. This is perhaps the most sickening image ingrained in our national consciousness from Donald Trump’s four tumultuous years in power. Following President Biden’s ascendancy to the Oval Office, such inexplicably heinous policy was meant to be a thing of the past. For many voters, rebuking Trump at the ballot box affirmed our national values of human dignity and equality before the law for all who seek our beacon of freedom beside the “golden door.” With Biden’s triumph, a collective liberal exhale sprang forth as a return to the normalcy and stasis of the Obama administration — albeit with his more than three million deportations over two terms — seemed within our reach. Biden expounded the most progressive immigration plan in American history, committing to “[w]elcome immigrants in our communities; reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees; [and] tackle the root causes of irregular migration.”
However, Biden’s immigration and border security doctrine falls well short of its promises. Lost in his administration’s progressive campaign rhetoric is the undeniable reality of sustained, nativist violence committed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers against the “huddled masses” at our borders. The campaign maneuvering of candidates too often gives way to their tacit maintenance of the very policies they once zealously denounced as racist and un-American before their election. Thus, we are left to wonder what “borders” truly divide the policies of candidates and opposing parties beyond political theatrics and posturing. Why are we made to believe that these “borders” are intrinsic and steadfast despite the coercive and negligent policymaking maintained from administration to administration? While Biden has traded Trump’s overt xenophobia for a more socially-conscious facade, the dire reality of forced and racially-motivated deportations, brutal arrests, and jail-like housing facilities for children remains just as relentless and repugnant as under Trump. 
The Title 42 Policy: An Ongoing Racist Legacy
In late September 2021, criticism of the Biden administration’s immigration policy reached a zenith when shocking photos emerged of White Border Patrol agents whipping Haitian migrants with horse reins. ICE brutalized these defenseless migrants as they stumbled out of the Rio Grande River, retreating from their temporary bridge encampment of roughly 12,000 people. Consistent with this odious display is the administration’s equally racist and illegal expulsions of Haitian asylum seekers under the guise of mitigating COVID-19 outbreaks. Title 42 of the U.S. Code, authorizing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to dictate entry to the U.S. on the basis of protecting against communicable disease, legitimizes such forceful migrant removals. Avowed xenophobe Stephen Miller first formulated the Title 42 policy under Trump, drawing heavily on the White supremacist immigration doctrine of John Tanton, who vehemently believed that “for European-American society and culture to persist, it requires a European-American majority.” Tanton, an infamous eugenicist, strove for decades to institutionalize his racist ideology through organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA, and the Center for Immigration Studies. To date, since March 2020, Title 42 has been utilized to expel more than 1.7 million migrants without a hearing before an immigration judge, with many individuals having faced deportation on multiple occasions.
When Biden reportedly aimed to end Title 42 expulsions in June, the Tanton network groups attacked, leading the administration to weakly keel over and announce an indefinite extension of the policy. In October 2021, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that the administration does not “see Title 42 as an immigration policy,” but rather a CDC ordinance necessary to protect the U.S. from disease, side-stepping any semblance of accountability. Such political waffling undergirds activists’ suspicions that senior White House officials view the border as a potentially “toxic” issue for Democrats and fear retribution from anti-immigrant lobbies such as Tanton’s network. However, activists contend backlash from the far-right will persist regardless of Biden’s immigration policy aims and that this resistance should not be considered a viable pretext for inaction. 
Although President Biden’s administration has failed at the highest levels to reverse, or much less, condemn the racist implications of Title 42, significant resistance to the administration’s indolence has emerged among lower-ranking officials. Ironically, only months before preserving Title 42, then-Senator Kamala Harris co-sponsored a bill in late 2020 labeling it as violating “long-standing, congressionally mandated protections for asylum seekers” and failing to protect public health. Yet, once in office, she and Biden were easily stifled by white nationalists, placating extremist voices far-flung from their core constituency. The art of political savants at work, indeed. Further, in an October 2021 declaration, Dr. Anthony Fauci asserted that Title 42 “is not the solution to an outbreak.” The persistence of this policy has also fomented internal backlash within the administration, with Ambassador Daniel Foote resigning as U.S. special envoy to Haiti on September 22, chiefly citing the “inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitians.” Harold Koh, a senior adviser and the sole political appointee on the State Department’s legal team, left his post for similar reasons. 
While Title 42 represents an unequivocal example of racially prejudiced immigration policy in practice, it is by no means the only such case in our flawed system; Biden’s passivity and political missteps foretell continuing disaster for a doctrine rotten from its inauguration. Crucially, over the past three years, less than 5% of Haitians who sought asylum in the U.S. were ultimately successful: the lowest recorded rate among 83 nationalities, followed by the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Those abysmal outcomes are the clear work of institutionalized and systemic racism in immigration policy. But to whom do we turn to when the perpetuation of immigration prejudice and discrimination has become the norm regardless of the Oval Office’s occupant? 
We knew exactly the type of populist brute we were getting with Trump. Yet, for just this reason, the hollow fallacy of Biden’s “progressive” agenda appears all the more damning and malign in hindsight. The president’s overall and immigration-specific approval ratings certainly echo discontent, with Biden scoring only 27% on the latter. By bowing to the racist predilections of the pathetic “patriots” and their acolytes that stormed our Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and alienating progressives who support true immigration reform, Biden spells his own ruin.
The True Colors of Biden’s Immigration Doctrine
Another ardent critique of Biden’s immigration program concerns the administration’s ironically-named “Migrant Protection Protocols,” commonly referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy during the Trump era. These laws force migrants into further precarity by forcing them to wait in Mexico pending asylum hearings that often never come. Tanton, Stephen Miller, and Trump’s discriminatory policies are alive and well under Biden.
The Biden administration has particularly failed to provide support for migrants fleeing crises due to “violence and insecurity, lack of economic opportunity, [or] corrupt governance.” Haiti, again, presents a cogent case to highlight this hypocrisy. Haiti has been in the process of upheaval since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and, amid the ensuing power vacuum, a sharp escalation of gang violence. Furthermore, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and tropical depression devastated Haiti in August last year, compounding the country’s political crisis with a humanitarian catastrophe. The U.S. has cruelly only offered those who arrived before July 29, 2021 “Temporary Protected Status” to remain in the country and has since rejected thousands fleeing environment, political, and social discord. By marking an arbitrary date for protected status, the Biden administration ignorantly and irresponsibly presumed the root and ongoing causes of Haitian migrants’ strife would dissipate — the opposite has proved to be true. 
The dismal treatment and immigration outcomes of Haitians and other migrants from non-White majority states appear all the more striking in light of the Biden administration’s March 2022 commitment to resettle 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian military aggression. Race and geography implicitly shape personal and institutional attitudes towards migrants. Indeed, according to an April 2022 survey by the Washington Post, Americans categorically view Ukrainians more positively than Afghan refugees displaced by the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover of the country in their presumed cultural similarity, security threat, and economic impact. Moreover, survey participants were significantly more likely to characterize Afghan refugees as increasing “the likelihood of terrorism in our country” than when considering Ukrainians. Thus, I am left to wonder, does President Biden’s prejudiced immigration doctrine merely reflect the fundamental legacy of racism in American society?
A Promise of Repeal: Too Little Too Late?
In late March 2022, the CDC announced it would finally end Title 42 by May 23, reversing the Biden administration’s stagnant former stance. Critics have asserted that the maintenance of Title 42 enabled the U.S. to avoid domestic and international legal asylum obligations, while allowing the Biden administration time to formulate the “humane” asylum system that his campaign promised. But what realistic expectation is there for concrete reform or political expediency after more than a year of complicity in the Trump-era’s racially driven deportations, inhumane border arrests, and prison-like housing centers for children? Skepticism is inevitable when apathy has become the expectation.
Beyond the staggering deportation figures, Title 42 has left far-reaching consequences in its wake. Shortly before the Biden administration’s policy reversal, Human Rights First released a report detailing nearly 10,000 instances of “kidnapping, torture, rape, and other violent attacks” on people deported to Mexico by Title 42 since he took office. President Biden could have prevented such unconscionable suffering had he put into practice the policy ideals he preached before the election and during his first days in office, when he ended the Muslim travel ban, halted border wall construction, and reversed the “zero-tolerance policy” that enabled family separations.
Although it is still the second year of Biden’s tenure, he is nonetheless on the cusp of an immigration-driven political disaster, one he cannot afford with the fallout of high inflation rates and growing concerns over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. President Biden cannot continue pandering to a bigoted conservative minority of Trumpian and Tantonite demagogues in the name of bipartisanship. This undue deference helps neither Biden’s slipping approval ratings nor the Black, Brown, and first-generation constituents to whom he promised a more just and humane immigration system. Biden must listen to the organizers that helped elect him before thoughtlessly hanging them out to dry, as so many have done before. 
Image by Max Böhme is licensed under the Unsplash License.
© 2022 Harvard Political Review. All rights reserved.


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