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Biden’s Use of the Slur “Illegal” Underscores His Rightward Lurch on Immigration

Trump’s border plan is fascist. Why is the Democratic Party ceding rhetorical ground rather than confronting the right?

President Joe Biden holds up a button with the name of Laken Riley as he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on March 7, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

President Joe Biden’s disconnected attempts to simultaneously pander to the anti-immigrant crowd without losing progressive members of his base were on full display this week, as he first expressed regret on Saturday about having parroted the offensive term “illegal” to refer to undocumented people during his State of the Union address, but then scrambled to clarify via a White House spokesperson on Monday that he “absolutely did not apologize” for having used the slur.

Biden made some attempts to distance himself from right-wing extremism in his fourth State of the Union address last week. For example, he chided the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade, rebuked the January 6 insurrectionists for threatening U.S. democracy, and called Trump out for racist and dehumanizing rhetoric toward immigrants.

But the reality is that when it comes to immigration, both parties are moving sharply to the right, with Biden now proposing and implementing policies similar to what Republicans have pushed for in the past, while former President Donald Trump has begun openly touting his fascist plan, developed by Steven Miller, to detain and deport millions of immigrants by deploying National Guard troops and local police, expanding open-air detention camps, incorporating ideological screenings for visa applicants, expanding rapid deportation proceedings and canceling the protected status or visas of various groups of immigrants, in addition to various entry bans and ending the U.S. refugee program.

Yet in his State of the Union address, in addition to parroting the hateful slur about undocumented immigrants, Biden invited Trump (for a second time) to join him in lobbying Congress for a funding bill that would not only provide billions of dollars to immigration enforcement agencies to ramp up detention and deportation, but would also implement several permanent and harmful changes to the immigration system, including making it almost impossible for most people to seek safety from persecution in the United States.

In reality, the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border is manufactured “chaos,” inflamed by open racists like Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to scapegoat immigrants while detracting from the failure of both parties to address the real needs of the American people.

Now, Biden and Democrats at large have legitimized Trump’s dangerous agenda, surrendering the narrative to the right when what we need now more than ever is humane and compassionate leadership to counter the Trump playbook, and a decisive and robust affirmation of the rights of all immigrants.

Just this week, Biden submitted his proposed budget for fiscal year 2025, which includes $26 billion for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection — more than what he requested for fiscal year 2024 and in addition to the supplemental request he made last year — underscoring again his commitment to a failed punitive approach to immigration.

Throughout his term, Biden has increasingly ceded ground to anti-immigrant forces, reneging on numerous promises he made on the 2020 campaign trail and now fully cosigning a racist and immoral right-wing border policy agenda.

Despite modest attempts to roll back some of the previous administration’s draconian immigration policies, in his first days in office, President Biden also started to reveal what would become a troubling pattern that has continued throughout his administration. He dragged his feet on repealing some of the most hate-filled immigration policies of the Trump era, including “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 — two policies that Trump used to restrict access at the border either by making people wait in unsafe conditions in Mexico or by immediately expelling them back to the countries they fled.

Since then, in direct contradiction to his early promises to end the use of private prisons, reduce reliance on immigration detention and fight for racial equity, Biden’s administration has extended existing ICE detention contracts, signed new ICE contracts and solicited proposals from private prison corporations. In fact, his executive order phasing out private prisons excluded ICE facilities, and the policies he has maintained have disparately impacted Black and Brown migrants. On Biden’s inauguration day, the number of people in ICE detention was near 14,000, a two-decade low. Today, under his watch, that number is approaching 40,000, as he lobbies Congress for money to detain thousands more.

The reality is that any progress Biden has made in establishing a more humane immigration system in the past three years is shrouded by half-truths, and is only the result of sustained, coordinated community pressure.

In the first half of Biden’s term, ICE did end several detention contracts, including for the notorious Etowah and Irwin County jails. However, at the same time, the administration maintained overall capacity by expanding or opening new migrant jails, including the Moshannon Valley detention center in Pennsylvania, and ramped up detention at facilities with records of abuse that even his own government said should no longer be in use. Additionally, while Biden ended the government’s use of the remaining ICE family detention centers, he failed to adopt a formal policy ending the practice of family detention, leaving the door open for this practice to return — and in fact, last year he even considered bringing back family detention.

Also in 2023, after years of pressure from advocates, Biden finally ended Title 42, but only after implementing several new policies aimed at reducing access at the border. Biden also drastically expanded ICE’s surveillance programs, increasing the number of people on GPS tracking this year, experimenting with new forms of surveillance, and introducing a new family surveillance program.

The president has also failed to adequately intervene to protect immigrants from the violent policies of right-wing governors such as Abbott in Texas, whose Operation Lone Star, with the cooperation of ICE, has funneled thousands of people into the detention and deportation pipeline, inspiring similar anti-immigrant laws in other states.

The concerns that immigrant communities and advocates have been raising for the past three years came to a head in recent months, when Biden sent a clear and dangerous message that he sees migrant lives as expendable by making grave concessions that double down on exclusionary and racist immigration policies in the now-failed supplemental funding bill.

Not only did the president submit a supplemental funding request for ICE that would have unnecessarily provided more than $7 billion to the agency on top of its astronomical budget of $8.4 billion, in negotiations he declared that he would shut down the U.S.-Mexico border (a sentiment he has repeated several times), and willingly offered to curtail his own parole authority, a crucial mechanism through which the executive branch can create migration pathways and keep people out of the abusive detention system.

In addition to several harmful permanent policy changes, the final negotiated bill provided Biden with more money than he asked for and included what would have been the largest appropriated amount for detention and surveillance in ICE’s history.

Taken alone, any one of the sweeping changes in the bill would have had dire consequences for immigrant communities, but combined they would be devastating. The provisions would not only have impacted newly arriving people at our southern border, with particularly harsh effects for people seeking asylum, but the increased detention capacity and enforcement personnel would also put people who have been living and working in the U.S. for years at heightened risk of arrest and deportation. More resources for ICE translates to increased targeting and racial profiling, more people in immigration detention and heightened surveillance of communities nationwide.

With the funding bill, Biden and Senate Democrats used immigrant communities as political pawns and created a blueprint akin to Stephen Miller’s, establishing a new starting point for future negotiations that normalizes a white supremacist, right-wing agenda.

Following Congress’s failure to pass the negotiated supplemental funding package, reports indicate that Biden may issue executive orders or regulations that would try to achieve some of the policy provisions in that bill, including making it near impossible for people to seek asylum in the U.S.

President Biden continues to show he has no reluctance to advocate for cruel and racist policies that will lead to more immigration detention, more family separation and more migrant lives in jeopardy.

Biden’s rightward turn on immigration is especially distressing to many immigrants and immigrant rights advocates in the U.S. given the extreme violence of the immigration policies proposed by Trump, who has already vowed to bring back and expand on his hateful and callous immigration policies.

Politicians are playing political games with people’s lives, and many across the country are fed up with Biden pointing fingers at the other side while rapidly moving to the right, instead of taking real steps to welcome people with dignity and respect.

But where the government is failing, communities across the country are stepping in to take care of each other, welcome newcomers and demand systemic change to create the future they want to see. In the past year alone, local communities have organized to meet the needs of thousands of migrants cruelly bussed from Texas to cities across the country, providing shelter, care packages, and a network of services and support. Calls demanding the closure of detention centers are forcefully rising, as communities recognize our current system prioritizes funding for border militarism, rather than economies that address the real needs of all people. They are reminding Biden that migrants will not be scapegoats and that the fight for immigration justice is part of a broader fight for social justice that has continued for generations and will continue until all people are free to move and thrive.

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