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Don’t Let Biden’s Latest Protections Excuse His Rightward Lurch on Immigration

Biden's recent order offers no fundamental change to the right-wing agenda on immigration that has become the norm.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks during an event for the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in the East Room of The White House, on June 18, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

On June 18, President Joe Biden announced that he would be taking executive action to protect undocumented spouses of American citizens, providing them with a pathway to citizenship. This would extend protections, work visas and citizenship to potentially hundreds of thousands of individuals, many of them DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients and Dreamers.

In response, The New York Times lauded the president as carrying out “one of the most expansive actions to protect immigrants since [DACA],” while arguing that through his executive action, Biden is following in the footsteps of President Barack Obama, whom the former served under as vice president. The executive action is meant to quell the fears of many DACA recipients who, in the case of another Republican presidency, might face the termination of the program altogether. Five months before the election, it is also clearly a last-ditch effort to secure a segment of voters for Biden.

Biden’s executive order will undeniably bring relief and material benefit to undocumented spouses (those who have been in the country for over a decade and meet other eligibility requirements). However, the order cannot undo Biden’s four-year rightward march on immigration; at root, it offers no fundamental change to the right-wing agenda on immigration that has become the status quo in the U.S.

This latest order comes just weeks after Biden’s prior executive action on June 4, which almost immediately shut down the U.S.-Mexico border, preventing a majority of migrants from seeking asylum, and drastically limiting asylum requests in one of the harshest measures of recent Democratic presidents. It essentially replicated Donald Trump’s asylum ban, with some requirements even harsher than under Trump. The June 4 order should serve as a reminder that Biden’s legacy on migration has in fact largely continued in the trajectory set by Trump.

Biden’s presidency has continued and expanded upon Trump’s migration policies, rather than breaking from them. In early 2020, Trump used the COVID pandemic as an excuse to invoke Title 42, enabling the expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers at the border, which resulted in the detention and deportation of nearly 400,000 migrants before Trump left office. Instead of revoking this policy once he became president, Biden defended it, and oversaw the deportation of 2.8 million people under the policy between January 2021 and May 2023, expanding it to include Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. In May 2023, Biden replaced Title 42 with another harsh set of regulations, increasing requirements for migrants to be eligible for asylum. Throughout his presidential tenure, Biden has also increased funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and expanded ICE contracts and ICE surveillance programs.

Biden’s order to shut down the border in early June built upon each of these repressive measures, all of which have paved the way for increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric and the monopoly of the right over the issue. His latest measure might appear to differ from this trend, but it chooses those deemed “worthy” of citizenship — married individuals who have been in the country for over a decade, have earned degrees, and are considered “law-abiding” — while simultaneously making it more difficult for other migrants to enter the country or apply for asylum. This approach risks replicating the good immigrant/bad immigrant paradigm that continues to criminalize undocumented migrants as a whole.

The categorization of immigrants as either “good” and worthy of protection or “bad” and needing to be deported and criminalized was a key feature of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), which began in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan but developed into a bipartisan framework increasingly championed by the Democrats. The CIR framework purported to offer solutions while in reality, continuously ceding ground to the right on migration for decades and paving the way for today’s crisis. It revolved around providing limited reforms for a small subset of “deserving” immigrants while increasing border security, enforcement, legislation and criminalization as a whole; making use of the good immigrant/bad immigrant trope to hide the fact that it caused harm to a much larger swathe of people than it helped. Even its “relief” for small segments of migrants has often looked like temporary guest worker programs. Functionally, the CIR framework contributed to the rightward march of politics around migration. Additionally, its policies have made migrant workers more precarious, pushed down wages of migrant workers and subsequently all workers, and allowed for attacks on labor and organizing activity through the continuous threat of deportation.

CIR was bolstered after 9/11 with increasingly xenophobic rhetoric, in particular the discussion of immigrants as a threat to national security. In a similar vein, Trump has attempted to use the crisis in Gaza as fuel to ratchet up asylum bans and xenophobic rhetoric against migrants at the border since October.

But the entire discourse around migration and the border has moved to the right for decades, and on a bipartisan level. Many conveniently ignore the fact that the construction of the border wall began under Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, before its expansion under George W. Bush.

President Barack Obama, for his part, put a pause on building the physical wall, but increased militarization and surveillance at the border, using military technology from U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq like watchtowers, drones and sensors. Obama expanded institutions like ICE, oversaw the detention of children and separation of families — well before Trump — and deported a record 3 million people. In fact, Trump was able to use the apparatus that Obama had put in place to enact his infamous policies throughout his presidency. In 2012, Obama also established the DACA policy. While a crucial policy for many, it had serious limitations and was criticized by immigrant rights activists. DACA did not provide amnesty or a path to citizenship, only temporary stays against deportation and work authorization for about 800,000 immigrants. Recipients cannot vote or receive federal financial aid, and their parents are also not protected.

Biden issued this executive action to protect undocumented spouses on the anniversary of Obama’s 2012 establishment of the DACA program. In June 2012, Obama was also facing an upcoming election cycle, and his creation of the DACA program managed to ease criticism, and to ensure the support of crucial segments of the Latino population for his reelection — after he had become known within much of the Latino and activist communities as the “deporter-in-chief.”

While Obama’s creation of the DACA program in 2012 may have saved him the election — the Latino vote was key to his reelection — for Biden, this seems like a last-ditch effort that risks being “too little, too late.” Trump and Biden, likely the two most unpopular presidents in recent history, are currently neck-and-neck in the polls. Latino voters are no longer consistently voting Democrat as they had been since at least the 1970s. Biden has lost support overwhelmingly among young Black, Latino, Arab and Asian American voters, with many saying that they would not vote for either of the two-party candidates.


Decades of rightward movement on the issue of migration and the border has led to a march toward fascism. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott launched “Operation Lone Star” in 2021, militarizing the border, arresting half a million migrants and criminalizing tens of thousands. Since 2022, Abbott has also forcibly evacuated over 100,000 migrants and refugees to Democratic Party-controlled states — and the Democrats have done little in the face of this crisis and nothing to change the right-wing status quo. Meanwhile, in his speeches, Trump has promised that if he is elected, he will oversee “the largest deportation operation in American history,” while further empowering ICE.

The Democrats have had no solutions on migration and the border, and have only conceded to the right for decades. Their only offers of temporary and limited relief are coupled with massive increases in border militarization, restrictions and criminalization. Worse still, the continuation of Trump’s policies under Biden has faced little to no public outrage, and certainly no mass demonstrations that could force him to heed his campaign promises and take a change in course. Instead, Biden’s rightward march has been papered over by the mainstream press. No matter which president is in office in January, we will need mass protests and long-lasting migrant justice movements to demand an alternative path than the decades-long, bipartisan criminalization and mass-deportation machine.

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