What could a Biden presidency mean for immigrants?

The first 100 days and beyond

By Ernesto Castañeda and Daniel Jenks

Joe Biden’s mantra of Build Back Better implies that not only will he reverse Trump’s many disastrous immigration policies, or just a return to a perception of “normalcy,” but that he would make changes for the best. The Biden-Harris administration should propose much more progressive policy than that from the Obama-era. Most of those who voted for Biden want him to go further to fix the problems of the refugee and asylum system.

Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Biden’s First 100 Days

As a candidate, Joe Biden promised to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) directive. President Obama signed DACA to help Dreamers obtain work permits and temporary relief from deportation. The courts have ruled against the way Trump’s administration tried to phase it out. Biden can reinstate DACA during his first days in office. More so, Biden could also expand the program to include both a wider age-range as well as unaccompanied minors separated from family members after asking for asylum. Additionally, he can assign resources to reunite these families in the U.S. as refugees. Another step in this direction would be to terminate the “Remain in Mexico” program — also known as Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) — and allow immigrants to present their asylum cases in the U.S. as dictated by international law and according to previous practice.

Biden and congress should immediately start drafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill. There are also things that Biden himself can do as soon as he takes office. First, it is the executive branch that sets the number of refugees who are accepted into the country annually. Biden can increase these numbers to make up for both the drastic reduction in the number of refugees accepted during the last four years and the many people because of wars and violence that can be connected directly to U.S. foreign policy. Biden can immediately end the Muslim ban, allowing both new immigrants to come and families to reunite. He can also both strike Trump’s public charge provisions and end the reduction and slowdown in the processing of green cards and guest worker permits.

Border fence between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California, USA. © Castañeda November, 2019.

The Border Wall

Trump ran on the premise of building a wall with Mexico under false pretenses of strengthening national security. Biden has pledged not to build any more of the border wall, but some argue that he should take down what already exists of the wall for both environmental and symbolic reasons. Critics of the wall contend that the border wall would not do what Trump imagined it would, and that there were many adverse effects — environmental degradation, billions of dollars in debt, and ultimately reinforcement of rhetoric about ‘Mexicans’ probing an imminent threat and invasion. This rhetoric was echoed in the manifesto of a man who traveled nearly 700 miles to a Walmart in El Paso, Texas to shoot people who looked “Mexican” to him. It is important budgetarily and symbolically to end the discussion about the border wall and to stop wasting money reinforcing existing fences.

Reinforced walls in Tijuana © Castañeda November, 2019.

DACA/DAPA

On November 14th, a judge ruled that Trump’s latest changes to DACA were illegal, and attorneys think that now . This will allow many individuals who were unable to apply for the program during the Trump administration to begin that process. The Biden administration could go further by ensuring that DACA data cannot be shared with . They could also expand DACA to those who migrated as minors but who are now older and were aged out before the program started.

Obama presented a follow up to DACA that provided deportation relief to those with US-born children — this was called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA. The program was put on hold by court order in 2015, and a supreme court 4–4 decision left that hold in place. Biden ought to revisit such a policy in a way more likely to stick or even better provide an amnesty to all those living in the US with expired visas or without valid immigration papers.

Essential Workers

The ongoing COVID pandemic makes it an issue of national security and public health to regularize all those working in essential jobs. Essential workers, citizens or not, are struggling due to Congress’ failure to pass a second relief bill. Undocumented people are not eligible for federal stimulus, unemployment, or unemployment bonuses. Federal relief could help everyone keep getting produce, deliveries, instruction, services, and healthcare provided by non-US born workers.

Central American Immigrants

Instability, violence, and lack of economic opportunity in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have created situations where many immigrate for fear of violence, death, or retribution from gangs or local police. Biden’s website mostly says that he will do something about issues in the region. This does not tell us much as far as what the approach will be to aid economic development and humanitarian projects, as well as fighting gangs and state-sponsored violence. In the meantime, people fleeing Central America should be granted Temporary Protected Status if fleeing climate change or natural disasters, and they should be granted asylum if fleeing violence, with or without written evidence whether as individuals or part of “a social group” as is currently required. These changes would not overwhelm the system but make it run more smoothly and humanly and would save millions of dollars from detaining and processing immigrant adults and minors. Instead, these individuals would become a predictable part of the labor force and the tax base.

Shelter in Tijuana housing recently deported people from the United States © Castañeda November, 2019.

Moving Forward

In addition to geopolitical contexts that cause a need for migration, welcoming immigrants is a benefit in itself by making the U.S. grow economically and demographically. Ultimately, we need to think of immigration in new terms. We cannot let the our future be based on either what the most racist and xenophobic president in recent memory did, or the what previous status quo was. Though less explicit, the Obama-era approach to immigration and border security were also largely based on nativist, exclusionist, and racist premises. By acknowledging this and challenging those premises, we can then craft just policy. Furthermore, the percentage of people relocating across international borders is only around 3%.

Expanding the scope of DACA, immigration reform with an earned path to citizenship for the millions of youth and families who are already here, and more compassionate guidelines for asylum cases as well as increased funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement and similar departments would be strong next steps. Ultimately, policies and legal structures that bring up the most vulnerable bring up everyone.

Ernesto Castañeda is Associate Professor of Sociology at America University. He is the author of A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Belonging and Exclusion in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford University Press 2018); Building Walls: The Exclusion of Latin People in the U.S. (Lexington Books 2019). He has bylines in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Hill, CityLab, and NPR. Twitter at

Daniel Jenks is a student in the Masters in Sociological Research and Practice at American University. They are working with Ernesto Castañeda on a book about the experiences of Central American youth in the Washington, DC area.

Published under Creative Commons CC-BY-ND. You are free to republish this article in official media sites both online and in print as long as you do not edit the piece and ensure that you attribute the authors.
Two layers of reinforced walls seen from Tijuana © Castañeda November, 2019.

Ernesto Castañeda is the author of “A Place to Call Home” and “Building Walls.”

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