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Biden-Harris Roadmap on Immigration Reflects How the Tectonic Plates Have Shifted

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The following is by Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice.

Why is the incoming Biden-Harris administration leaning in on immigration? Because the tectonic plates have shifted, creating a bigger opening than ever for pro-immigrant policy. 

The key factors in this shift: 1) Trump’s nativism backfired with the majority of the public; 2) immigration as an electoral wedge issue has lost its edge; 3) the pro-immigrant movement has changed the terms of the debate; and 4) as a seasoned legislator, Biden has a deft touch when it comes to locating the sweet spot that unifies the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic coalition.

Nativism is the original sin of Trumpism. From the day he descended that escalator in 2015, Trump has demonized immigrants, and from the first day of his administration, he has inflicted enormous pain and suffering via his relentlessly cruel policies. By executive fiat, he and his evil sidekick Stephen Miller have banned Muslims; ended DACA and TPS; gutted asylum; decimated refugee admissions; blocked legal immigration; launched raids; attacked local pro-immigrant policies; expanded detention and deportation; imposed a wealth test on low-income immigrants; bullied neighbors; celebrated out-of-control border and deportation agents; and more. The basis for these policies: white supremacy and cruelty anchored in the view that immigration is bad, diversity is a threat, and the way to keep “them” out is to treat them as if they were less than fully human.

Biden and Harris have a very different set of immigration policy priorities. The cornerstone is a sweeping bill to put 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. This is a rare point of overwhelming consensus among a divided electorate, with some three quarters in support. Only the cul-de-sac of the Trump base opposes it. Meanwhile, on Day One, President Biden pledges to end the Muslim ban; reinstate DACA; impose a 100-day pause on deportations (until a new approach to enforcement can be put in place); stop all border wall construction; launch a task force to reunite separated children; and roll out the path to citizenship bill. Biden and Harris come from a very different place than Trump and Stephen Miller. They believe immigrants are full human beings, they are assets to our nation, and being a welcoming nation reflects our values and serves our interests – especially when well-managed.

The key factors in the shifting of the tectonic plates: 

  • Public opinion: Trump’s nativism backfired. His cruelty forced a choice, and a solid majority came down on the side of immigrants. Gallup 2020 polling showed support for immigrants and for increasing immigration levels — questions they have been asking since 1965 — is at its highest level ever. Pew Research 2020 polling found that 60% believe the growing number of newcomers strengthen American society while 37% say they threaten traditional customs and values – a whopping 14 percentage point shift in the pro-immigrant direction in just the past four years.
  • Electoral politics: Republicans have wielded immigration as a potent wedge issue for 25 years. Xenophobic attack ads have become a staple of GOP campaigns (see our just-released report, GOP Ad Wars in 2020: Divisive, Anti-immigrant and Racist). But now, nativism as a wedge issue is losing its edge. In the last election, Biden was attacked in ads for supporting “amnesty.” So were Democratic Representatives Conor Lamb and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania. So was Mark Kelley of Arizona. They all won. Why? Our pollsters at GSG asked in battleground states. Their take: “few voters – and even fewer swing voters – find this to raise doubts about voting for Biden, even though many believe the line to be true. That’s because voters largely support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.” Remember 2018 and the caravans? It backfired, big time, with Democrats winning the largest midterm victory in American history.
  • Movement power: The immigrant justice movement has changed the terms of the debate. No longer willing to accept endless increases in enforcement, the movement has increasingly demanded and won a bold rethink of the past decade’s hyper-enforcement. Add the growing power of bottom-up electoral power authored by many in our movement — highlighted by the 2020 upsets in Arizona and Georgia — and Democrats are leaning forward on race and immigration as never before.
  • Biden’s superpower: Biden’s legislative experience and political skills enable him to find the sweet spot in the Democratic coalition — the zone that carefully calibrates progressive and moderate priorities. He’s done just this on immigration: no to the old “comprehensive immigration reform” framework, yes to legalization for the 11 million as the top priority; no to the mantra of ever increasing border security and control; yes to smart border management and efficient governance; no to ripping kids from their parents, forcing refugees into dangerous conditions in Mexico, and the mass incarceration of families seeking freedom, yes to root cause alleviation in Central America, expanded legal pathways from the region, fair asylum rules for those who come to the border, and ramped up case management supports for those pursuing their cases. 

Four years of Trump’s relentless cruelty and mismanagement has left our immigration system in chaos. But the incoming Biden-Harris administration is leaning in with confidence to undo Trump’s cruel and chaotic policies, build a fair, humane and functional immigration system rooted in our values, and fight for transformative legislation that puts millions on a path to citizenship. 

They say that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. Perhaps our time has come.