For the American Left, the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency offered ample opportunity to criticise his immigration policy. Those were the days of coast-to-coast airport shutdowns and street demonstrations, hipsters with “Abolish ICE” T-shirts, and a weekend in which the American Civil Liberties Union pulled in $24 million in donations just by promising to file court challenges to Trump’s executive orders. Activists and Democratic lawmakers alike travelled to the border to protest detention centres and the alleged fascism they embodied.
Two years later, their zeal appears to have backfired: faced with a record surge in migration on the southern border, the polarisation of immigration has placed President Joe Biden in a political and bureaucratic bind. Border Patrol agents estimate that in just one 24-hour period in September, 10,000 migrants arrived in Eagle Pass, a small town on the US-Mexico border that is home to 30,000 residents. Further north, the Mayor of El Paso, Texas, has warned that the border city, experiencing a flow of 1,200 migrants per day, is at “breaking point”.
This unmanageable flow of migration, already overwhelming hospitals and shelter beds in New York and Chicago, is rapidly fuelling a backlash among local Republican and Democratic leaders alike. And the strain is spilling over into the presidential race. Recent polls show Biden is deeply unpopular, in part due to his response to migration. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 62% of Americans disapprove of his actions on the issue.
In response to the crisis, Biden appears to have doubled down, sending the signal that his administration welcomes more immigrants. Last month, he granted legal work status to nearly 500,000 Venezuelans who have entered the country over the last two years. Measures that might deter those considering the journey, such as greater enforcement of immigration laws or border security, appear off the table. Yet while the response is in tune with the modern Democratic Party’s approach to the issue, it is far from the historical norm.
Ronald Reagan, for instance, passed sweeping laws creating new penalties for illegal migration while extending amnesty to millions. Barack Obama and George W. Bush later supported greater enforcement while encouraging lawmakers to enact new protections for the undocumented. Even Biden himself appears to have changed his tune. “Folks, I voted for a fence,” he told a small Rotary club in South Carolina in 2006. “I voted for 700 miles of fence.” And he wasn’t the only one: the legislation he was referring to‚ the Secure Fence Act — was supported by much of the Democratic caucus, including then-Senator Hillary Clinton and current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Later, as Vice President, Biden stood alongside Obama while the administration exceeded records for deportations, eventually hitting 3 million removals. Biden, like most Democrats at the time, also campaigned for greater surveillance and enforcement measures, including a massive $46 billion border security reform that passed the Senate in 2013 but collapsed following an onslaught of attacks from a new wave of House Republican politicians — many of whom represented historically working-class union-heavy districts in the manufacturing belt of the Midwest. These lawmakers bitterly opposed new migrants and refugees, and instead urged the removal of legal status from even the children of migrants born on American soil. This revanchist approach presaged the style that soon gave rise to Trump, who announced his bid for the presidency in 2015 by warning darkly that migrants from Mexico are “rapists” bringing drugs into the country.
As his rhetoric became more belligerent, the days when Democrats acted tough on enforcement or voiced concerns for American workers forced to compete with low-wage immigrants quickly evaporated. Support for greater migrant rights and opposition to enforcement became a litmus test for candidates. Crucially, this mirrored a demographic shift with the Democratic Party, which increasingly gained support in the affluent suburbs, where voters are less likely to see low-wage migrants as economic competition and are more likely to view migration as a net positive.
Corporate leaders, perhaps to conceal their support of Trump’s tax and regulatory policies, also loudly advertised their opposition to him on the issue of immigration, and promised big donations to immigration reform activists, who became increasingly vocal within Democratic circles. For his part, Biden, as he campaigned for the presidency in 2020, recanted his Obama administration record. “I think it was a big mistake,” he admitted, promising to end the construction of Trump’s border wall and do everything in his power to promote legal as well as undocumented migration.
Just as remarkable was the dismantling of local-level immigration controls. Much of the deportation bureaucracy had relied on migrants being arrested for crimes locally, often for traffic violations such as drunk driving, and then being processed through transfers from local prisons to federal immigration authorities. In rebellion against Trump, however, Democratic states, mayors and other local leaders moved to ban such cooperation. The “sanctuary city” rules that sharply limited the participation of local law enforcement in immigration enforcement, once a quirk of liberal bastions such as San Francisco, became the norm as the entire state of California adopted such rules. While this push had the desired effect of blunting Trump’s ability to deport, the effective outlawing of police assistance has tied the hands of Biden’s own immigration officials.
And who is to blame? At a gala dinner in September, Biden singled out Trump for his immigration woes. “The Maga Republican congressmen of my predecessor spent four years gutting the immigration system,” he said. And, in some ways, he was right. Trump and the House Republicans turned immigration into a political battlefield. The real problem, however, was that the anti-Trump Left couldn’t stop themselves from gleefully embracing the opportunity for a fight, blissfully unaware that, just two years later, it would prove to be a trap.