The barbaric treatment of Haitian refugees by the U.S. government has exposed the incoherence of the Biden Administration’s approach to immigration and the racist roots of our immigration system. By speaking out against the use of horses to chase down migrants while simultaneously denying most Haitians even the chance to apply for asylum and deporting them without due process, Biden has given us much of the substance of Trump’s cruelty while trying to avoid the grotesque and vicious visuals, the cages and horses, that offend Democratic base constituencies. The Administration obviously thinks this feint is good politics, but it’s a disastrous miscalculation. There is an obvious and compelling alternative: We should use all available tools to transform our system into one that welcomes migrants now, and dramatically expand our legal immigration system to welcome millions more people to the United States in coming years. Such a policy is right on moral grounds, but there are also compelling historical, economic, and political arguments for doing so.
Biden’s ambivalence on immigration extends beyond the treatment of Haitian migrants. He condemned the use of cages and family separation against Central American migrants during his campaign, but has kept in place Trump’s invocation of public health laws to circumvent the legal right of people to approach the U.S. border and seek asylum. (And, as of August, 16,000 thousand children are still in detention.) The logic of deterrence—tough policies at the border that send a message not to seek refuge in the United States—has been the same under both administrations. Biden has proposed a sweeping and progressive overhaul of the country’s immigration system but has not made legalization of millions of undocumented people a top priority in the Build Back Better legislation. And earlier this year the Administration proposed to admit a shockingly small number of refugees, only to backtrack under pressure. Overall, the Administration has allowed itself to be bullied by the same white nationalist sentiment that Biden condemned during the campaign, presumably for fear of seeming weak.
In order to compel a different policy approach, we need a new narrative that would start by openly acknowledging the U.S. role in destabilizing Haiti and Central American countries over decades. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have supported dictators and prioritized access for U.S. corporations to resources and cheap labor, rather than human rights or democracy. This has inevitably led to pressures to migrate for people fleeing political violence and extreme poverty. Meanwhile, climate change, caused disproportionately by U.S. carbon emissions, is causing hurricanes, floods, and drought in our hemisphere. The costs of climate change are overwhelmingly borne by the poor, and this is especially true in the Caribbean and Central and South America. People don’t want to leave their homes and families, but, for some, migration is the last, desperate, and only option for survival.
Our history in the Southern Hemisphere creates a moral obligation to welcome people seeking refuge. If you burned your neighbors’ houses down, and then refused them entry when they come knocking on your door for shelter, most of us would find that behavior deplorable, even more so if you brutalized them at your front door. That is exactly how we must understand U.S. refugee and asylum policies today. We need to see immigration not just in terms of individual decisions, but as the result of economic policies and historical forces the United States has set in motion. We are implicated, not innocent. One could argue that generous migration policies are a necessary form of reparations for the massive harms U.S. foreign and economic policy have brought about in this hemisphere.
In addition to moral imperative, we should also understand increased migration as a driver of economic prosperity. According to census figures, in the last decade, the United States experienced the slowest population growth since the 1930s. If current trends continue, the ratio of workers to retirees will be 2:1 in 2060, compared to over 6:1 in the 1960s. That’s an unsustainable ratio, not least for the older Americans who depend on worker-financed benefits like Social Security and Medicare. There is considerable evidence that immigrants revitalize local economies, don’t take jobs from native-born workers, and that while there is a short-term cost to government, the long-term fiscal impact of immigration is overwhelmingly positive. Rather than adopt the racialized and false scarcity narrative that Republicans have peddled, Democrats should embrace immigration as an economic driver.
Perhaps most crucially for the Administration’s calculations, proposing increased migration levels are good politics. After Trump’s brutality, the public is ready for something different. For the first time in over 50 years, more Americans support greater migration than less migration, according to Gallup polls. And there is a massive and growing constituency for generous immigration with a direct stake in the issue, including in many politically crucial swing states. One in 10 eligible voters in America today is foreign born, and millions more native-born live in mixed status families with immigrant relatives. When Democrats have forcefully defended immigrants, as with President Obama’s use of executive power to shield young immigrants from deportations, they have been electorally rewarded. Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhoold Arrivals (DACA) policy is overwhelmingly popular and he received a historically high share of the Latino and Asian American vote in 2012. By contrast, the failure to deliver pro-immigrant legislation and the adoption of harsh deportation policies have depressed turnout. Studies show that when progressive parties in Europe adopt nativist frames, in hopes of defanging the appeal of right-wing demagogues, they actually lose support because they legitimize those ideas.
The most compelling case for changing course on immigration may be the immense costs to our country of the vast, sprawling immigration enforcement machinery that has expanded exponentially since 9/11. The homeland security state diverts resources from urgent needs such as health care and education, but the costs are not only fiscal. By perpetuating a militarized border and a massive workforce whose main job is to police, harass, and detain Black and brown people, we are mainlining poison that inevitably spreads and begets more violence, including hate crimes. The homeland security state was predictably deployed by President Trump against democracy and used to surveil and detain domestic protestors last year. Allowing brutality at the border to become normalized, as we are now doing, will further coarsen our political culture and inevitably undermine the feelings of empathy and solidarity that progressive governance depend upon. Cruelty has consequences, not just for immigrants but for everyone.
So, what should Biden do to reverse course? In the short term, he can insist on inclusion of a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the Build Back Better legislation pending before Congress. If the Democrats repeat their failure to deliver reform with unified control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, the human and political consequences will be severe. Biden can also use his extensive executive powers, as he has done recently to increase the number of refugees who can be admitted to the United States over the record low levels under Trump. The Administration can go farther and restore a real right to apply for asylum and halt deportations, and mobilize all of government and civil society to help 9 million already eligible legal permanent residents become citizens as quickly as possible. And he should propose a massive expansion of legal immigration, a “Statue of Liberty Plan for the Twenty-First Century,” to make the United States the most welcoming country on earth for immigrants and, in doing so, correct our many past wrongs. A failure to change course would betray promises made to voters to move us away from Trump’s vision and empower white nationalists and an insurgent anti-democratic right wing.