As the future U.S. president, Joe Biden promises to deal with immigrants differently than his predecessor did. But Donald Trump’s policies will continue to shape the country for years.
More than 600,000 tons of steel and nearly 24.7 million cubic feet, distributed along approximately 422 miles. That is the preliminary result of what was once Donald Trump’s most important campaign promise. He wanted to build a wall, make Mexico pay for it, and make the U.S. safe again. Safe especially from “criminals, rapists, and drugs” that until then were able to enter the country unheeded across the southern border, as he declared in his campaign ads as early as 2015. And up until the last day of his presidency, on Jan. 20, the digging and building will continue. The progress can be tracked on a government website. Construction costs per mile of wall: nearly $20 million.
Trump will not manage to complete his self-declared “big, beautiful wall” along the 1,954 mile border between the United States and Mexico before the end of his term. He himself has kept lowering the 1,954-mile goal over the years. In his State of the Union address in February 2020, Trump said the wall would be built quickly, but he said that merely 500 miles would be completed by January 2021. Quite a bit of concrete and steel would have to go up in just a few days to even reach that mark.
And the 422 miles that have been completed are mostly upgrades of older, existing barriers along the border. According to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported by the press, only a few miles of the wall are actually new. But Trump doesn’t view the details so precisely. And even those would not make for good performance numbers.
Starting on Jan. 21, Customs and Border Protection can remove the mileage count from its website. President-elect Joe Biden wants to pursue different immigration policies. During his presidential campaign, he said he would not let one more meter of the wall be built. But you can’t tear down tons of steel so easily—and that is not even Biden’s plan.
Trump Instituted More Than 400 Executive Orders
An open house America goes against every policy in recent years. The U.S. as a great nation of immigrants has long ceased to exist. If anything, the only ones who are still welcome are those who are supposed to help Silicon Valley program a new world.
Trump’s administration was not only dismissive of immigrants, with its striking images of the wall: Children who were separated from their parents at the border or could not be reunited with them; inhumane detentions of people who entered the country illegally; a travel ban on countries with largely Muslim populations; restrictions on asylum and almost no acceptance of refugees. These are just some of the restrictions imposed by the once promised land.
According to a Migration Policy Institute report, Trump issued more than 400 executive orders through July 2020 that restricted immigration. “It is unlikely that a future administration will have the political will and resources to undo all of these changes at anywhere near a similar pace,” wrote report authors Sarah Pierce and Jessica Bolter.
Obama: Deporter in Chief
Biden’s future secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, will have a lot to do at every level. “The new administration will face substantial challenges in putting immigration and refugee policy back on track,” according to a report by the Center for Migration Studies which contains proposals to deal with this policy. The substantial challenges are caused by the measures Trump took, from the thousands of additional border patrol agents who were supposed to be hired but weren’t, to imposing added hurdles for visa applications.
Until 2019, more people with a visa were studying and working in the U.S. under Trump than ever before. But in June 2020, the government stopped issuing work visas through the end of the year and justified its decision with the coronavirus pandemic. This decision pleased Stephen Miller, however, who is considered the architect of Trump’s immigration policy and who long argued that foreign workers were hurting the U.S. Since Trump took office, fewer people have received permanent residency visas than ever before.
When Biden’s election was announced thousands celebrated in Washington outside the White House, they included many who hoped to finally welcome visitors from their homelands. In fact, Biden announced that he would lift the travel restrictions often referred to as the Muslim ban, which bars visitors from 13 countries, including Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Nigeria, calling the ban racist.
This year, the U.S. will have accepted fewer refugees than ever before. Trump wanted to limit immigration to 18,000 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; even fewer actually arrived. This year, Trump has permitted travel for just 15,000 people. Until now, an average of 98,000 people each year have been admitted ro the U.S. as refugees each year. Biden has announced that he wants to admit 125,000.
More than 850,000 Deportations in 2019
The issue of of how the U.S. will deal with thousands of immigrants who attempt to enter the country illegally every year was controversial well before Trump’s presidency. In 2019, nearly 270,000 people were deported. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of arrests on the border with Mexico doubled, from 396,579 in 2018 to 851,508 in 2019.
That was also because the U.S. experienced a heavy influx of people at the border in 2019 compared to Trump’s first two years in office. In particular, people from El Salvador, Guatemala were fleeing violence and poverty. It is expected that after Trump’s term ends and the pandemic is over, still more people, especially from southern Latin America, will try to enter the U.S.
Deportations are part of U.S. politics. Even if it is proud of its history as a country of immigrants and a melting pot of different nations, the U.S. has always limited and regulated entry by foreigners. Progressive groups criticized Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, calling him the “deporter in chief.” More than 3 million people were deported during Obama’s presidency, more than ever before. Trump used his symbolic wall as another building block in his promise to white voters of long-term hegemony.
The Future of ‘Dreamers’
Thus, Trump’s policies also addressed all areas of immigration: illegal entry on the southern border, legal visa entries and asylum, and the question of what to do with the estimated 10 million to 12.5 million people without documentation currently living in the U.S. They are silently tolerated, even by Republicans, because they largely occupy poorly paid jobs in agriculture and the service industry, where they work under poor conditions. The country needs them; American citizens are not willing to do that work.
Obama created some security for those who entered the country as children under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Under this program, “Dreamers” could not be deported.* Trump wanted to dissolve the program but failed after a Supreme Court ruling. Yet the Supreme Court only ruled on procedural issues, and not on the DACA program itself. Thus, the government stopped accepting DACA applications. Biden, Obama’s former vice president, has announced that he will revive the program.
Before he leaves office, Trump is also hoping to keep all people without legal documentation from being counted in the recent census. The census forms the basis for determining how seats are distributed in the House of Representatives. This electoral manipulation would be especially convenient for Republicans if, for instance, Democratic California, where a good many immigrants live illegally, consequently received fewer seats. A lawsuit has been filed challenging the Trump administration’s proposal and is before he Supreme Court. Shortly before Christmas, the conservative majority on the court decided that it could not yet rule on the case, which could allow Trump to move forward with his plan. But human rights groups have already announced that they will pursue additional litigation to oppose Trump’s plan.
As the new president, Biden is not only facing the task of working through all of Trump’s executive orders and prioritizing those to reverse or maintain. He also needs to find his own way to deal with the emotional topic of immigration. According to a Gallup poll in July 2020, a majority of those questioned support immigration to the U.S. But these 77% are mostly Democrats. Republicans are much more skeptical about immigration.
At the beginning of 2020, strong winds felled sections of the border fence in California. But after four years of Trump, concrete and steel have not decisively shaped immigration policy in the U.S. Instead, it is the hundreds of executive orders that Trump has issued to circumvent Congress; a wall of paper that is supposed to keep people from entering the U.S, regardless of the path they take.
Just before Christmas, Biden’s team announced that it would not immediately reverse the restrictions that Trump had imposed on asylum applications. Biden’s team said that such a move could be easily misunderstood and unleash a storming of the border, which could result in a humanitarian crisis especially given the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even if Biden’s incoming administration wants to eventually reverse all of Trump’s orders, and some will be retained even under a Democratic president, Trump’s decisions will shape the U.S., the nation of immigrants, for years to come. And in confronting the challenges of immigration policy, it will not be enough for Biden to return to the status quo that existed before Trump.
*Editor’s note: Dreamers refer to young people who would benefit under the DREAM act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, legislation which has not yet been passed by the Senate.
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