Critics across the political aisle have accused the Biden administration of ineffectively attempting to play both sides on immigration. Some on the left see Kamala Harris’ “point of problem” approach as an alternative.
The Biden administration has come under fire for its handling of immigration policies, with opponents across the political spectrum charging it with poor handling of continued crises at the border. While some reforms have been made, particularly for immigrants already living in the United States, asylum seekers continue to be held in inhumane conditions or deported en masse.
According to Vox, “The Biden administration has clung to pandemic-related border restrictions enacted by Trump, known as the Title 42 policy, under which the US has expelled hundreds of thousands of migrants without giving them access to their legal right to apply for asylum.”
In September, during the onset of Haitian refugees’ arrivals at the southern border, NPR cited Human Rights Watch’s US Program associate director and border policy specialist Clara Long in saying, “Biden’s message has been confusing, both trying to be more welcoming to migrants and continuing some of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies.”
Amid public backlash, the LA Times reports that “Biden and Harris are attempting a difficult political feat: criticising the actions of their own administration”
While the blame for significantly worsening the immigration crisis falls squarely on the shoulders of the Trump administration, it is just as clear that Biden has been inactive in course-correcting, let alone remedying the decades of racist policies that have preceded both presidencies. Internationally, though, Kamala Harris has taken a more definitive approach and been lauded for it.
In February, Harris took the helm for the administration’s Root Causes Strategy, the details of which were made public in July. The White House website states, “This Strategy identifies, prioritizes, and coordinates actions to improve security, governance, human rights, and economic conditions in [Central America]. It integrates various U.S. government tools, including diplomacy, foreign assistance, public diplomacy, and sanctions.”
The move has been supported by some on the left who see it as a holistic attempt at improving lives of would-be migrants, before they even attempt to reach the US.
The plan is organized into five pillars according to the White House: “Addressing Economic Insecurity and Inequality; Combating corruption, strengthening democratic governance, and advancing the rule of law; Promoting respect for human rights, labor rights, and a free press; Countering and preventing violence, extortion, and other crimes perpetrated by criminal gangs, trafficking networks, and other organized criminal organizations; Combating sexual, gender-based, and domestic violence.” Yet behind this attractive facade, the reality is more sinister.
Coupled with humanitarian aid are brutal and ineffective measures to quell immigration at all costs. A New York Times article found that, “Urged by the United States, Guatemala agreed to increase the number of troops […] at its borders to block people from fleeing north and stop migrant caravans before they made it to Mexico. Guatemala ended up beating migrants […] with batons and spraying them with tear gas.”
Spending via the Root Causes policy combined with political pressure used to bolster armament on the borders of the Northern Triangle states (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) has even relied upon the cooperation of the very officials who continue to stoke the humanitarian crises of violence and poverty.
The New York Times reports that “The Biden administration has often been slow to back up its condemnation of corruption with retribution for bad actors in high places. Now, [policy agendas are] being filled by Central America’s strongman leaders, who have spent months tightening their hold on power and systematically targeting opponents who stand in their way.”
When the administration should be using spending to directly improve conditions in detention centers and more speedily process visa and asylum requests, it is instead finding new and creative ways to further brutalize immigrant communities in collaboration with increasingly right-wing-authoritarian leadership. This is entirely antithetical to Biden’s campaign promises, though not wholly unexpected.
What these policies come down to is the executive office marketing two concurrent bad options; either commit acts against humanity at home or commit them abroad where they are easier to ignore.
Migrants attempt the most daring of journeys which no one should be forced to endure, giving up everything for just a chance at being granted asylum in a country where they do not have to fear for their lives on a daily basis. Now, as throughout the United States’ history — which itself has contributed to the social erosion of the nations in the Northern Triangle — our country is actively inflicting suffering against would-be immigrants.
From the AP article, “Migrants find themselves stranded by new US policy,” there is even evidence that mass deportation flights under Title 42 fail to screen for COVID-19 before re-entry into home nations, though 42’s entire purpose is to mitigate the spread of dangerous contagions.
The extent of these policies may be new, if not more extreme, but continue an interesting dynamic between US politics and immigration. Just look at the Obama administration, which was primed to be a major reformist, but ended up favoring number optics and escalated what was an already shaky undertaking at the border and in detention centers. Biden is coming across as too similar; he wants to show that we have moved away from violence and heartlessness, but wants numbers to drop too. No one spends political capital without some personal benefit. In this case, Biden and Harris are allowed to take credit for the boost in humanitarian aid, and punt responsibility for border militarization and brutality to other governments.
As the political and social trial that is immigration continues, it is important to recognize that it all comes down to fear. For too long the narrative of immigration has used this fear for political viability, and it’s important that we look past it to see what’s really going on in places we’d sometimes rather ignore. There is no need to spell out the contributions that immigrants have on the US economy and society, though they are many, because frankly these are not political pawns or statistics but human beings who deserve the same rights and fair treatment as any other.
Echoed in Harris’ now famous discouragement to migrants, “Do not come. Do not come,” the Biden administration has been more concerned with deterring immigration than ensuring human rights.