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After Trump, the Fight for Immigrant Rights Will Continue Under Biden

The fight for immigrant rights must acknowledge the racist bipartisan roots of our current status quo.

Demonstrators march through downtown calling for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on September 2, 2020, in New York, New York.

I have spent most of recent weeks bleary-eyed and exhausted, and now momentarily relieved for a Democratic win. But for many advocating for and with the immigrants in our families and communities, our tired rage is thoroughly bipartisan.

The terror I have felt is not simply what another four years of the Trump administration would bring to the immigrants in my life once the counting and litigating dust settled. Rather, it is now the fear of continued Democratic destruction and complacency.

It is a compelling argument that a Joe Biden victory is a pragmatic form of harm reduction. But it is also essential to understand the real harm that we have had to — and will need to — continually fight against.

Immigration is a symptom of U.S. nationalism, ongoing economic imperialism and our endless wars. The militarization of the border patrol, the construction of border walls and the “second walls being erected throughout our communities and across the globe is a bipartisan project.

When we sit and debate the dignity of immigrant lives, it is essential that we tie these struggles to the dispossession of Native peoples and the enduring anti-Blackness of our country’s history. These are bipartisan white supremacist histories and presents.

Two years after Bill Clinton signed the notorious crime bill that has devastated the lives of Black and Latinx men everywhere, and in the midst of “welfare reform,” Clinton also signed a pair of bills (the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act) that solidified the criminalization of immigrants and the neoliberal state. The current evolution of these public charge rules would force immigrants to choose between housing security, feeding their children, getting medical care… and potential deportation.

These Clinton-era policies also fueled an immigration enforcement multiplier that is erroneously attributed solely to the GOP. The 287(g) program (and later the Secure Communities and Priority Enforcement Program) handed local jurisdictions a blank check to co-conspire in terrorizing, kidnapping and detaining immigrants. President Obama simultaneously solidified and obfuscated this trend under misleading tag lines like “felons, not families.” While the Trump administration has acted with particular cruelty, both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have worked hand in hand with Democratic state and local administrations that helped build the foundation for a racialized deportation pipeline.

The troubling images of babies in cages and family separation have been seared into the liberal psyche, prompting candlelight vigils and both legal and moral pleas for Republican mercy. But these haunting realities also have a direct lineage to the disproportionate removal of Black and Native children from their homes for centuries, as historian Laura Briggs chronicles. We must not lose sight that a kinder and gentler racial capitalism offered by the Democratic Party can be just as devastating, if not more insidious.

The ballot box is a tool, but it will not save us. But what has and will continue to do so are the tireless advocacy efforts of immigrant leaders throughout the country.

Subjecting any of these efforts to an ideological litmus test is counterproductive. Short-term compromises (again, as a form of harm reduction) will always accompany long-term demands. But, chastising the “far left” for demanding changes that seem unpalatable to well-off liberals — such as to Abolish ICE, Defund the Police, Healthcare for All and Cancel Rent — is not only misplaced energy, but a settling for the status quo.

Two fights on the horizon for immigrant rights advocates across the country are worth noting.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which benefited nearly 800,000 young people, was not won simply through the benevolence of President Obama, congressional Democrats or the former Secretary of Homeland Security (former Democratic Arizona governor, and outgoing University of California President) Janet Napolitano. DACA was the end compromise won by immigrant youth, and especially queer immigrant youth, mobilizing and demanding accountability for years.

Similarly, the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which currently benefits nearly 400,000 predominantly Central American and Haitian immigrants, has persisted precisely because of groups such as Adhikaar, Alianza Americas, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the UndocuBlack Network, and dozens of unions.

Though Trump has continually vowed to cancel both TPS and DACA, neither was a gift from any Democratic leader, nor were either ever the end goal. If Biden keeps his promise to preserve both, it will be because immigrant leaders have demanded a full pathway to citizenship for all and a final end to the deportation machine.

Ultimately, we have to be the ones to demand change and to hold leaders accountable (regardless of the party in power). We have activists across the country to thank for gains in immigrant rights, not Democrats.

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