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Joe Biden: the New Face for Much of the Same on Immigration

(Jaime Rodriguez Sr/U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

“Democrats have long gotten away with murder this way, shaking migrant hands in public view while mercilessly oppressing them out of sight.”

To much fanfare, President Joe Biden has begun pushing his preferred agenda to fix immigration. This includes shifting United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s enforcement priorities, ending construction on the border wall, reversing Executive Order 13769 (“the Muslim ban”), introducing a pathway to citizenship for a large portion of the nation’s undocumented immigrants, and even contemplating the rollback of the new citizenship test introduced during the Trump administration. While much of what President Biden has put forward in his early days in office sounds good (and looks even better on paper), it simply continues the veiled restrictionism long favored by the Democratic Party. 

A proposed new law, The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, would allow undocumented people first to obtain a temporary legal status. Then, after five years—and assuming they pass criminal and national security checks and pay taxes—migrants can move forward to become permanent residents of the United States. Three years later, they could further continue to the citizenship stage. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status holders, among others, could apply immediately for permanent residency. The legislation even looks to supplant the word “alien” with “noncitizen” throughout immigration laws. This looks both humanitarian and makes for a welcome nominal change, given that there has been no serious attempt at allowing undocumented people to change their status since President Ronald Reagan’s proposed “amnesty.” And, undoubtedly, this would save countless migrant families from further heartbreak. Many of the undocumented immigrants I have worked with, past and present, would wait at least this amount of time (if not much longer) to be given some semblance of political protection. 

The current cadre of political elites knows that there is a great deal of electoral power to be harnessed by appearing to be allies of the migrant community.

But this is no evidence of Democrats taking a radical stance on immigration; this is only proof that they intend to be facially less awful than their predecessors. Capitalist politics consistently pull a fast one here. Occasional surges of hyper-nationalism and out-in-the-open immigration restrictions are, in due course, tempered by humanitarian pleas that simultaneously use immigrants as political pawns. The current cadre of political elites knows that there is a great deal of electoral power to be harnessed by appearing to be allies of the migrant community. It is precisely because of the current form of immigration law (and a particularly outward xenophobic posture by the United States federal government over the last four years) that Democratic “reform” will appear to be a shining light in the darkness, rather than being one more incremental shift in a long history of control over migrant bodies.

Attached to the path-to-citizenship provision is a key date: January 1, 2021. A migrant had to have been present in the United States by then to receive the benefits of the law (barring a narrow exception for other humanitarian reasons). This is a perfect example of the humanitarian-restrictionist contradiction of the Democratic Party; it actually quietly accepts the underlying reactionary and conservative nature of immigration restrictions, just in more “humane” forms. Democrats, past and present, still exercise control over who can reside within the bounds of political life, and they continue the long history of doing so arbitrarily and in the interest of capital. The ongoing economic, political, and now climate instabilities that have displaced so many people over the last century have not changed and have only worsened. Yet, if a migrant did not step foot in the United States by January of 2021, his or her suffering will be unaccounted for under the new law. The machinery of oppression throughout the system remains intact; it just redraws the lines a bit to appear more humane. 

President Biden’s legislation is the continuation of this game, where Democrats play both sides of the fence. They want to appear as humanitarians, protecting the vulnerable as far as the public sees it. However, they do this while simultaneously guaranteeing the status quo. This requires elaborate shows of valorizing a population—e.g. switching “alien” to “noncitizen”—while, in most other respects, either continuing or even expanding the machinery of oppression. This is apparent even in the new ICE directives that, tellingly, say to lay off migrants that are already present in the country but then lump more recent entrants just behind terrorists in terms of priority for removal.

There is a very practical reason for this approach: to stop more people from coming. It is reminiscent of 2014, when President Barack Obama’s response to the large waves of migrant children coming to the United States was aggressively to pursue removal of those arriving, as well as to work with the Mexican government to keep any more from coming. I was standing in immigration court in Charlotte, North Carolina the day ICE’s counsel advised the immigration judges that they would no longer agree administratively to close children’s cases. A permanent family detention center opened in 2014 in New Mexico; ICE began working to remove people within ten to 15 days; and Mexico began apprehending children on their way to the United States. And it worked. The number of children coming to the border plummeted in the span of two months.

This game of mixing humanitarian concerns with deeply reactive restrictionism is a legacy tactic for Democrats, something perfected under President Obama who, while pushing “Dreamer” legislation and implementing DACA, deported more people than any of his predecessors in the Oval Office. Yet, he is still seen and defended as a great ally to migrants. President Biden’s legislation, even if it passed word-for-word, is merely another concealment of the party’s restrictive nature, one that, as Professor Suzy Lee notes in Catalyst, has always been the case. Democrats have long gotten away with murder this way, shaking migrant hands in public view while mercilessly oppressing them out of sight. These reforms are a way of pacifying the millions of increasingly alienated people immediately present in the United States who reside outside of the political order, lest tensions grow to the point of threatening capital.

President Biden will continue to deport people in large numbers. He is also unlikely to change fundamentally the exclusionary nature of the asylum system, shut down immigration courts, or seriously curtail ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) abuses. If the past is any guide, with neoliberal reforms like the ones presented, he does not have to.

There will likely be another divisive consequence within the class struggle, should President Biden’s immigration plan be implemented. By drawing the line between people present now vs. the equally oppressed who come behind them, it will reinforce an “us” (migrants who went through the process “legally”) and “them” (those who arrived after the date set out in the proposed legislation). This, too, has consistently worked as a dilatory and distracting tactic within the working class; it reifies the arbitrary divisions set out by capitalism as just ones. The very language of the bill—“earned path to citizenship”—suggests that personhood and political protection are merit-based for a certain group of people. And once these people have finally worked to earn it, the idea that any and all after them should do the same will take root. If history is any indication, this will work all too well.

The other reforms—raising visa numerical limits, eliminating some of the penalties for the undocumented present in the country, the aid packages to Central American governments, and even raising the refugee cap—also fall into this veiling of restrictions. While some of these will, undoubtedly, allow more people to achieve relative safety in the United States, the new limit of 125,000 refugees per year is a drop in the bucket of the over 26 million refugees worldwide. Raising visa limits might abate the massive backlog for some categories of family visas (stretching back as far as 1996 for certain Mexican immigrants), but it does nothing to ameliorate the longstanding damage that global capitalism has wrought. 

Even targeting the “root causes of migration” in Central America in the bill is no boon. Typical of neoliberal problem-solving, it looks to either throw money at nations—whose governments the United States has spent the last century destabilizing—in the hopes those countries can keep their problems to themselves; develop space for the growth of capital; and/or provide the appearance of being a generous benefactor. Measures in the bill targeting poverty, for example, would seek to “enhance economic competitiveness and investment climate,” which is a rather old (and consistently ineffective) bid at alleviating poverty, one that usually results in more streamlined exploitation. On the corruption and organized crime front, things have gotten so bad within the Northern Triangle that the United States has little choice but to try to tamp down the fires it set raging over the last 100-odd years, lest they burn too close. 

Similarly, the expansion of offices abroad to “facilitate the safe and orderly movement of individuals and families seeking international protection” can also be read as another mechanism for keeping people where they are. This includes other measures like Sec. 2203’s dissemination of information about the dangers of traveling to the United States and limitations of legal protections, which are to be tellingly targeted “At regions with high levels of out-bound migration.” These measures, which masquerade as offering concern, do the work of keeping the growing tides of people away from the heart of the empire.

I am under no illusions: There is no political will within neoliberalism fundamentally to upend the immigration framework in the United States.

And, of course, no modern reform to immigration laws would be complete without substantial increases in enforcement and surveillance. In this case, there is the increase in “large-scale, non-intrusive inspection systems” that today might be leveraged against international criminal gangs (like facial recognition technology) and tomorrow will come to a city and law enforcement near you. 

One could go on and on about how these many supposed expressions of equality and equity (and pursuits of reform and justice) serve as mere lip-service to those values. However, the central point is precisely how such expressions (well-intentioned and otherwise) conceal the disastrous human toll capitalism has taken and how daily, displaced migrants bear this out in their bodies, stories, and in their exclusion from political life. 

I am under no illusions: There is no political will within neoliberalism fundamentally to upend the immigration framework in the United States. It can no more deliver up a just system to migrants than it can the means of production to the working class. And while I have no doubt that there are likely some legitimate, well-intentioned humanitarian interests driving some of these changes, any reform—let alone this one—is insufficient in any objective sense.

Make no mistake, should such legislation pass, many of us in the field will continue to work to get as many people as free as we can. None of this critique is to demean the ongoing, collective struggles to wrench our humanity back from the capitalist order. Marx himself acknowledged that enshrining things into law like eight-hour workdays or the abolition of slavery are essential components of the struggle against capitalism. Ensuring that there is adequate medical care, food, and shelter for migrants arriving at the border; requiring CBP to account for any use of force; and banning family separation are all positive steps in improving the immediate lives of human beings. Even threadbare reforms have very real effects on real lives.

But these reforms are no substitute for emancipatory politics and demands, ones that would fundamentally re-examine the relationship between citizen and migrant, together with that of the working class and the means of production. This, then, is my greatest fear with this new wave of neoliberal reforms: that we will be lulled to sleep after the nightmare of the last four years, only to have old oppressions perpetuated and new ones spring up while our eyes are closed.

Daniel Melo is a public sector immigration lawyer in the American Southeast who primarily works with refugees. He is the son of a migrant himself. His book, Borderlines, is due to be published by Zer0 Books in August of this year. 

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