Biden is sandbagging on immigration

The issue is becoming a new "third rail" of American politics.

Before Biden was elected, it seemed like a lot of people expected him to be a very pro-immigration President. The basic reason was that Trump had been an extremely anti-immigration President, and Biden was supposed to be the anti-Trump. In addition, Trump’s attacks on immigrants had shifted public sentiment significantly, so that Americans were in a more pro-immigration mood than any time in recent history:

At first, it seemed like this conventional wisdom would be borne out. Biden came right out of the gate with a big immigration bill that included an amnesty for the undocumented, without adding any strict new enforcement provisions (as had been the traditional practice in big immigration bills). He also halted construction of the border wall, reversed Trump’s family separation policy, scrapped deals to send asylum seekers to third countries, attempted to cancel Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, started processing green cards again, and in general has done various small things to speed up the legal immigration process.

So far, so good. This was a moderately more pro-immigration stance than Barack Obama, which made sense given the anti-Trump backlash and the need to clean up the mess Trump made.

But from the very beginning, I predicted that Biden’s moves toward openness would be limited. Last November, when Biden picked Alejandro Mayorkas to head DHS, I wrote the following:

If Biden hits reverse too hard, it could cost him politically. In economic terms, a few hundred thousand Central American migrants will do little to hurt the U.S., but their presence will rile up law-and-order voters who bristle at the notion of people crossing the border illegally or skipping out on asylum hearings. That could hurt Biden with constituencies like Hispanic voters who live in the Texas border counties that swung hard to Trump in 2020.

That means that the new administration is highly unlikely to embrace radical pro-immigration ideas like open borders, or recent Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro’s call to decriminalize unauthorized border crossing. 

Instead, Biden and Mayorkas will probably try to accept asylum seekers from Central America at a slow and ordered pace. Detention will probably persist, in a much more humane form. And Biden may even negotiate new, though less rigid, agreements to keep some asylum seekers at home as the administration tries to improve living conditions in those countries.

As it turns out, my prediction was right. Biden kept pandemic border restrictions in place, including rapid deportations and expedited removal. Kamala Harris went down to Guatemala and told migrants in no uncertain terms: “Don’t come.”

Mayorkas repeated this message to Central Americans, and again to Cubans and Haitians. The administration’s message is very clear: The United States is not opening itself to the people of Latin America and the Caribbean.

But this wasn’t Biden’s only move toward restrictionism. He tried to keep the annual refugee cap at the same low level Trump had set it at, relenting and raising it to 62,500 only after an intense public backlash. On green cards, the administration’s sluggish push to restore approvals means that many slots will go to waste. And Biden has dragged his feet on taking in Afghan refugees, apparently making few plans to evacuate the many Afghans who assisted the U.S. occupation, accepting only a modest number, and trying to find other countries to take most of the refugees instead.

These are not the actions of a President intent on making a 180 degree turn from the Trump era. Nor are they consonant with the unprecedented pro-immigration sentiment seen in national polls. Why is Biden turning out to be surprisingly reluctant to take in foreigners?

One possibility is labor-protectionism. The economy is recovering, but there are still millions out of work, and the near future is uncertain due to a continuing pandemic and supply-chain disruptions. Even if you’re aware that refugees don’t take native-born jobs or lower native-born wages on average, you might worry that during a pandemic, when jobs are limited, the situation might be different. Also, Democrats were traditionally the party of labor-protectionism; the shift toward a more full-throated endorsement of immigration is new. Recall that FDR deported a million people in the Depression (including some citizens). Those roots go deep.

Others suspect that the sheer force of Republican anti-immigration fury has cowed Biden into inaction. In the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell writes:

There’s also a more stomach-churning possibility: that Biden didn’t evacuate Afghan allies sooner because he was afraid of what Fox News might say.

The Post and other outlets have reported that Biden feared the “optics” of flying in refugees from Afghanistan…The administration reportedly feared right-wingers would conflate [Afghan refugees and Central American asylum-seekers], and rather than correcting this demagoguery, the White House apparently decided to concede the point…

I’ve heard similar themes in my own interviews. People involved in White House discussions said they were told that fear of nativist backlash was a major factor delaying relocation of Afghan interpreters and other allies to U.S. soil, and that this was why the administration was trying to persuade a “third country” to accept our wartime allies.

This is possible, but as Rampell notes, this approach is obviously doomed to failure. No matter what the Biden administration does, conservative media will go all-out with accusations of a Great Replacement, accusing the Biden administration of flooding our country with unassimilable aliens with the goal of reshaping American identity and dominating partisan politics. These accusations are a fixed behavior; the Right does them in order to cement its coalition, and Biden shifting a bit in an anti-immigration direction will not change it one bit.

Nor will the conservative media audience know the difference between 20,000 Afghan refugees and 100,000, or between 100,000 Central American refugees and 300,000 — they will see pictures of planeloads of Afghans and caravans of Central Americans, and they will assume the country is being swamped by a horde regardless of the actual numbers.

Biden and his people must know this. They’re not stupid; they certainly don’t hope to get any sort of a pat on the back, or even a mild diminution of vitriol, from the likes of Tucker Carlson. So I suspect something else is going on in addition.

What I suspect is that the new American support for throwing open the country’s gates is more broad than it is deep. There’s a real desire to cleanse the stain of Trump’s human rights abuses and flirtation with white-nationalism — to at least be able to say that America is still the Nation of Immigrants, that we still have compassion for the people of the poor countries of the world. But beyond that idealistic impulse, I’m not so sure that most liberals have a strong, enduring commitment to welcoming in as many refugees, asylum-seekers, and economic migrants as possible.

One reason is that the Democratic party is increasingly the party of the educated, and to most educated Americans, people like refugees and asylum seekers live in a different world. There’s little natural class solidarity or empathy there. And when it comes to skilled immigrants — the people waiting desperately for that backlog of 100,000 green cards to be processed — well, to most educated Americans, that’s the competition. Both for themselves and for their kids in schools.

I also suspect that restrictionist sentiment is more common among liberals and the Left than most would care to admit. They may say “immigration is good” in the general sense and use it as a club to beat Republicans with, but at the same time some harbor concerns about specific aspects of immigration — for example, the illegality and chaos of unauthorized entry, In a recent Harvard/Harris poll, substantial majorities of Americans (i.e., including some Democrats) said they were concerned about illegal immigration and wanted stricter border security to control it.

These polls suggest that although “immigration is good” is now a thing that people say in order to express the valence of their political leanings, it does not translate simply into straightforward policy wishes. Restrictionism isn’t cool among Democrats, but a bit of it is still there, underneath the surface.

Nor should we assume that Biden and his administration are simply following the polls here — there was enough pro-immigration fervor among the Democratic base to force Biden to raise the refugee cap, and many liberals are pushing the administration to take in more Afghans. It’s likely that many within the Biden administration are themselves intrinsically worried about admitting large number of refugees. That hesitancy could involve labor-protectionism, or it could involve a sort of classist revulsion at the unwashed masses. (I doubt it involves “cultural” concerns that Afghans will bring in terrorism or that Central Americans will fail to assimilate, but you never know.)

And while I do think it’s unlikely that the Biden administration is making policy to appease the likes of Tucker Carlson, I do wonder if the Trump era taught Democrats that immigration provokes a dangerous backlash. Yes, conservative media will scream about immigration at maximum decibels, but perhaps if the inflow is allowed to quietly wane, it won’t provoke another right-wing nativist revolt and another 2016.

This is why despite the polls, despite Biden’s initial good moves, I’m still pessimistic about the near future of immigration in the U.S. Broad but possibly shallow pro-immigration sentiment on the Left is matched up against an absolute right-wing jihad. This asymmetric salience is turning immigration into a new third rail of American politics — like abortion, something to be yelled about and fought bitterly about on the margins, even as both sides are too afraid to take dramatic action to upset the status quo. Biden’s sandbagging seems consistent with this sad new reality.

So my prediction is that while we won’t see a 1920s-style immigration “pause”, there’s a good chance we’ll see a long-term slump, as Trump’s restrictionist moves settle into their role as the new status quo — a bit like post-9/11 curbs on privacy and personal freedom became the new status quo even after we elected Obama.

Which would be a damn shame, because on top of all the moral reasons to bring in refugees, the country’s population is stagnating. We need those foreigners — yes, including refugees, who actually do pretty well economically — to boost growth and pay taxes. We definitely need them if we’re going to economically compete with China. Maybe it’s unavoidable that our culture wars paralyze us and prevent good immigration policy, but that will come with a price.