Trump and Biden on immigration: Nearly opposite, but not quite

Asylum seekers are held in a temporary transition area under the Paso Del Norte bridge in El Paso on March 28, 2019.
Asylum seekers are held in a temporary transition area under the Paso Del Norte International Bridge in El Paso in March 2019. The U.S. Border Patrol set up outdoor pens where some migrants, including children, were held for as many as four days, sleeping on bare gravel.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

When Donald Trump descended a gilded escalator at Trump Tower in New York in 2015, he made the central animus of his presidential campaign immediately clear:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

His rhetoric was broadly rejected as xenophobic fearmongering, panned as proof that the businessman best known as a reality TV host was not a serious 2016 candidate.


Yet, almost four years in the White House later, for an infamously inconstant leader, President Trump has been remarkably consistent on immigration.

Abandoning any pretext of targeting only illegal action or working with Congress — including when Republicans controlled both chambers — through more than 400 executive actions, according to the Migration Policy Institute, Trump’s administration has essentially sealed off the U.S. southern border, slashed legal immigration and reduced foreign policy toward Latin America to enforcement.

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In some ways, Trump has embraced and expanded several of President Obama’s key initiatives on immigration, including those championed by then-Vice President Joe Biden.

Obama deported more immigrants than any other president, over eight years when migration largely plateaued. His administration conducted widespread family raids, prioritizing Central American parents and children for removal. And when pushing billions in economic aid to the region to help stem an influx in unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border — coupled with support for then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Programa Frontera Sur, or Southern Border Program, a surge of security assistance intended to in effect move the U.S. border south to Guatemala — Biden was his point man.

This precedent helped enable Trump officials to leverage a sprawling, dysfunctional post-9/11 security infrastructure toward achieving the president’s jingoistic political agenda.

Under a cloud of polls showing Trump’s base eroding and him lagging behind Democratic nominee Biden, the president doubled down in a flurry of immigration policy changes on the pretext of the coronavirus to try to reignite his supporters.

For Biden, as his primary opponents warned him, it’s no longer enough to not be Trump on immigration. If he wins, the former vice president will try do what Obama, and others before him, could not: comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. But he’ll have to first address the hundreds of interlocking actions Trump has taken, from little-noticed administrative adjustments to sweeping policy changes, in order to ultimately rebuild an already broken and now battered U.S. immigration system.


Whether Trump or Biden wins, the U.S. will be left grappling with the current president’s immigration policy long after he leaves the Oval Office. Here’s where they stand:

President Trump tours border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego County in 2018.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

President Trump

Deterrence has been the immigration policy of choice for both parties for decades, but Trump and his closest aides — particularly anti-immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller — have taken it to unprecedented extremes.

One of Trump’s favorite targets has been asylum, which he calls “a hoax.” He suggests that because most pass the first step — a credible-fear screening, set by Congress to be a low bar — but ultimately only about 25% win asylum, that means most claims are fraudulent.

In reality, Trump and his officials have waged war on the asylum system because they are trying to bar primarily Central Americans fleeing countries ravaged by corruption, violence, poverty and climate change, who once at the border are by the design of U.S. law difficult to kick out.

U.S. law grants migrants the right to seek asylum, regardless of how they enter the United States. The federal statutes center on “non-refoulement” — not sending people back to countries where they’d probably be persecuted, harmed or killed, based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group.

Trump’s policies to end asylum have been consistently met by court challenges. These tactics have included separating families or making them wait for U.S. immigration court appearances in dangerous Mexican border cities; indefinitely detaining others with no chance of bail or parole despite having broken no laws; and in the name of “public health,” rapidly expelling nearly every migrant, including unaccompanied minors, with no chance to seek asylum, no coronavirus testing and no way to track what happened to them.

Trump’s executive actions leave perhaps the biggest bureaucratic tangle a Biden administration would be left to undo, with a backlogged immigration court system and inevitable future spikes in migration.

Trump’s pattern of testing institutions and fundamental assumptions about governance with his immigration policy has played out with mixed results.

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On family separation, Trump issued an executive order in 2018 to stop the policy his officials still maintain was not a policy amid worldwide outcry, just before a judge ordered an end to the practice and ultimately required the government to reunite families. And yet, authorities continue to separate families.

Even after a June Supreme Court ruling rejected the administration’s effort to rescind the popular Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, Trump is defying the court and attempting to run out the clock, according to legal experts and lawmakers, refusing to accept new applications and limiting renewals. DACA recipients, often called “Dreamers,” are challenging the restrictions in federal court.

Trump issued memos freezing most new green card applications and barring most categories of family- and employment-based immigration until after the election, while sparing large swaths of the agricultural and healthcare industries determined to be essential in the coronavirus response. The administration has also implemented new “wealth test” policies to keep out poor migrants, rejecting those who might use, or whose U.S. citizen children might use, public benefits.

Research shows that immigrants strengthen the economy and typically don’t compete with U.S.-born workers for jobs or lower their wages, and many of the affected industries, as well as Trump officials themselves, have advocated for more immigration, not less.

The administration has sought to restrict citizenship, raising fees for naturalizations and slowing processing of hundreds of thousands of potential 2020 voters.

Just shy of 2020 voter deadlines, the federal agency that handles citizenship is out of money, and thousands of green card holders can’t become citizens.

June 28, 2020

One of Trump’s first moves was to issue his travel ban targeting travelers from many Muslim-majority countries, citing national security concerns. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld a third version of it.

He’s gone on to threaten hundreds of thousands more people already in the U.S., including Venezuelans, Salvadorans and Nepalis, and an appeals court recently sided with his administration to end Temporary Protected Status. And refugee admissions are expected to fall below even the ceiling of 18,000 that the administration set for 2020, the lowest level ever under the modern refugee system. Now, the administration has proposed accepting only up to 15,000 refugees for the next fiscal year.

These moves hark back to Trump’s comments in the Oval Office in January 2018, when amid a bipartisan standoff over Dreamers, Trump asked: “What do we want Haitians here for? Why do we want all these people from Africa here? Why do we want all these people from shithole countries?”

He added, “We should have people from places like Norway” — a predominantly white country.

Another of Trump’s early executive orders made every immigrant in the country illegally a priority for arrest, in contrast with Obama’s use of “prosecutorial discretion” to prioritize those with criminal records. And yet, beyond the border, immigration arrests and removals by Immigration and Customs Enforcement have fallen under Trump — though the proportion of those deported without criminal records has more than doubled, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Trump is on his fifth Homeland Security chief, and calls to reform the government’s third-largest agency are growing, particularly after the president dispatched heavily armed, unidentified federal officers from the department to cities across the country undergoing protests against police brutality and racism.

The militarized response in American communities — at the same time as the Trump campaign is fomenting fear in “law and order” ads demonizing Democratic-led cities — follows Trump’s deployment of the military to the border just before the 2018 midterm, where they remain. About a month before the election, ICE launched a “billboard campaign” in the battleground state of Pennsylvania featuring billboards of people in the U.S. without documentation who were detained and released. The effort to criticize so-called sanctuary policies dovetails with Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

The president is still operating under a “national emergency” declaration, by which he’s redirected billions in federal funding, including from the Pentagon, toward turning his “build the wall” campaign catchphrase into a reality.

And yet, according to Customs and Border Protection’s June status report, only “three miles of new border wall system [have been] constructed in locations where no barriers previously existed.” There are 657 total miles of barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the report — 654 built by his predecessors, mostly Obama.

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Mexico has not, as Trump promised, paid for the wall, but under threat of tariffs, the administration has cajoled Mexico into taking asylum seekers the president doesn’t want in the U.S. and escalating its own enforcement. The administration also leveraged potential visa restrictions and aid cuts to Central America into sign-offs from the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to take asylum seekers who are not from their countries.

While those agreements were put on hold amid the pandemic, the Trump administration is pushing the Northern Triangle governments to resume — despite the fact that the U.S. has deported scores of migrants who got the coronavirus in U.S. detention, worsening its spread.

If the aggressive push to tick off the last of Trump’s political priorities on immigration amid a pandemic is any indication, another four years would cement the door shut.

Joe Biden speaks at a candidate forum in San Diego in August 2019.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the UnidosUS primary candidates forum in San Diego in August 2019.
(Sam Hodgson / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Joe Biden

Biden’s proposed immigration platform aims to undo what he calls Trump’s “misguided policies” by taking an opposing position on just about every one of the president’s efforts to curb immigration and limit protections for immigrants, those here both legally and illegally.

Biden would expand protections for immigrants and restore many of the Obama-era policies overturned by Trump. The former vice president would work with Congress to establish a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 10.5 million people who are in the U.S. illegally. He also supports compromise legislation for farmworkers that would potentially offer them a fast track to citizenship, based on agricultural work history.

Biden, who voted in favor of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which approved funding for a border wall, has criticized Trump’s “obsession” with the wall. Biden has said that during his first 100 days in office he would end Trump’s national emergency declaration, which has rerouted billions in federal funds to the border wall, and instead direct resources toward improving security at ports of entry.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders also say immigrants in the country illegally must feel safe to seek testing and treatment for the coronavirus.

March 15, 2020

The Democrat has sharply criticized Trump’s zero-tolerance policy that separated thousands of families at the border. He’s promised that in his first 100 days he would prioritize family reunifications, reinstate the DACA program and rescind Trump’s travel ban.

Biden promises to work with Congress to increase the number of employment-based immigration visas and triple the number of U visas granted to victims of human trafficking and certain other crimes. He’s also vowed to raise the annual refugee admissions to 125,000. In Obama’s last year, admissions were just under 85,000 before they they plummeted under Trump.

Biden’s plan also aims to address the root causes of immigration from Central America. He proposes a four-year, $4-billion plan with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that would target corruption, invest in civil society organizations on the front lines and require the three countries to allocate resources toward reducing poverty, insecurity and violence.

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To pay for U.S. investment in the plan, Biden would use funds from the Department of Homeland Security’s budget for the detention of migrants, which has increased under Trump. Biden would also end the use of for-profit detention centers to hold migrants.

According to his proposed immigration policy plan, Biden would restore safeguards for domestic-violence survivors left unprotected by their governments, which the Trump administration has tried to disqualify as a basis for asylum. The Democrat would also increase the number of immigration judges, court staff and interpreters.

In July, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces, a combination of supporters of Biden and his former primary rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, offered platform recommendations that included protecting the parents of Dreamers under the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.

Biden has offered few details on a route toward citizenship for those family members, which the task forces recommend should be reinstated. The campaign said he would use every legal option to protect Dreamers and their families.

Immigration activists have criticized the former vice president over the millions of deportations the Obama administration carried out, which Biden has called a “big mistake.”

Obama’s immediate Republican and Democratic predecessors apprehended millions more people at the border, but often returned the primarily single adult Mexican migrants quickly, with no formal process.

Biden calls for increased training and oversight of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and of Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol. He has said that he would protect sensitive locations such as hospitals, schools and places of worship from enforcement actions and end workplace raids, which have increased under Trump.

Biden has said healthcare coverage should be available for everyone, no matter their legal status, and his campaign said he supports allowing immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to buy unsubsidized coverage.

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The former vice president has called Trump’s policies and rhetoric against immigrants an “all-out assault.” He tied Trump’s fearmongering about immigrants crossing the southern border to the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, where Latinos were targeted by a suspect whose white supremacist screed posted online blamed the attack on a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

“The stakes of Trump’s irresponsible policies of division and hate that he promotes is real,” Biden said.

O’Toole reported from Washington and Gomez from Los Angeles.