Deeper Into Darkness or a Chance for True Progress: The Stakes on Immigration

Publication date: 
October 2020

Since the first moments of his campaign when he came down the escalator, nothing has been as consistent in President Trump’s candidacy and presidency more than his attacks on immigrants, centered on his threats and efforts to separate families—from those seeking asylum at the border to families long settled in every corner of America. The President took a long failed immigration system and weaponized it. A campaign built on promises to deport as many immigrants as possibleban all Muslims from entering the U.S., and usher in a new era of virulent anti-immigrant xenophobia birthed a presidency that has been a constant, all-out assault on immigrant families, and disproportionately attack people and immigrants of color.

This election provides a critical chance to reaffirm our role as a nation that welcomes immigrants, even in the most limited sense. The stakes could not be higher: while a Biden presidency presents the opportunity to transform and finally create the modern, humane immigration system that our nation deserves, I fear far too few people understand that a second term of a Trump presidency would be much, much, much  worse than the first term. 

A Second Term of Trump

A second Trump term would allow the President both to escalate his attacks on immigrants and continue weaponizing the U.S. immigration system, as well as begin new assaults on the basic human rights of immigrant communities and the very idea that America should, albeit imperfectly, welcome immigrants.

As bad as many believe it would be, a second term would likely be much, much worse.

Expect the hardline anti-immigrant fringe currently running America’s immigration policy to become even more violent.  

First, expect the dramatic escalation of demonization and attacks on immigrants that have already devastated families and communities. There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., and many millions of them have been here for decades. Nearly 8 million U.S. citizens live with an undocumented family member, and many millions more immigrants who aren’t yet citizens could be deported in certain circumstances. A Trump win would escalate widespread ICE raids that already keep millions of people living in fear. While President Trump has met four years of resistance to his policies from state and local governments and Congress, a second Trump term would allow a massive increase in arrests, incarceration, and deportations. Likely efforts to secure funding around the traditional appropriations process and expansions of expedited removal—allowing for the arrest and deportation of immigrants without due process—would aid him in these efforts.

President Trump will seek a total end to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) – programs that offer protections from deportation and work authorization to more than 1 million individuals who have built their lives here, and who are our valued friends, loved ones, neighbors, and colleagues. The average DACA recipient came to this country at the age of 6 and has been here over 22 years. The Supreme Court ruled against President Trump’s attempt to end DACA in a landmark 2020 decision, but the program – along with TPS – would almost certainly be eliminated. Yes: public opinion overwhelmingly supports Dreamers having permanent protections in the US, but a Trump administration buoyed by re-election and with a 6-3 Supreme Court will do all that it can within its power to strip away these protections.

President Trump would escalate efforts to isolate and deny immigrants basic life necessities. His “public charge” policy is both designed to slash the ability of immigrants to access basic needs like healthcare, by threatening their eventual ability to earn a green card, but also to sow so much confusion among immigrant communities to deter immigrants from accessing public benefits to which they are legally entitled. President Trump would try to make this a deportable offense—meaning someone waiting for a green card could be deported for taking their child to a doctor in many cases. A second Trump term could mean an effort to overturn the “Plyler vs Doe” decision that allows all children access to K-12 education, regardless of their immigration status. Imagine denying an entire generation of Texans or Floridians or Californians basic medical care or K-12 education just because of their immigration status – it would make every community sicker and poorer. President Trump seeks to make life for immigrants in the U.S. so hard that they will choose to leave.

In a second Trump term, America would no longer be a beacon of hope for those from around the world seeking refuge. The world looked on in horror as the administration separated over 5,000 kids, were planning to separate over 25,000–and today, 545 kids remain apart from their parents. President Trump has essentially ended the ability for anyone to apply for asylum at the southern border through a series of intersecting, often illegal policies. He has continued family separations, while keeping tens of thousands of vulnerable individuals stuck in makeshift tent camps mere feet from our border in Mexico. Moreover, President Trump has already slashed the refugee program by more than 90% in the last three and a half years. Four more years would see America abandon the role as any semblance of a welcoming nation perhaps permanently, and reverting to some of the worst moments in our history.

As our economy struggles to recover in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus public health crisis, immigrants are absolutely essential to our recovery. Millions of immigrants of all backgrounds, including the undocumented, have helped keep all of us safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic as frontline essential workers. They are the farmworkers putting food on our tables, the healthcare workers caring for our sick loved ones, and the researchers dedicating countless hours to finding a vaccine. To be clear: there is no public health or economic recovery without immigrants and immigration. 

And yet, a second Trump term would damage our ability to rebuild even more than his total failure to address the virus already has. Millions of undocumented essential workers would be denied basic rights. Prior to the pandemic, many of the President’s efforts to slash legal immigration had failed, even among the GOP —including executive orders and legislation that would have cut immigration in half. Under the pretext of COVID-19, the administration slashed immigration by 92% according to the Cato Institute—the largest cuts in American history. Such massive permanent cuts to legal immigration avenues would fundamentally end the U.S.’ long-standing role as the top destination for people trying to build a better life for themselves and their families. It would destroy our place as the top destination for global talent – ending our preeminence in higher education, science and research, and innovation. It is hard to imagine a policy more detrimental to our continued economic recovery and growth.

With a second term, President Trump would push to eliminate the basic rights of immigrants to be counted at all – constructing the census to under count immigrant communities, pushing ahead with the likely support of a 6-3 Supreme Court on apportionment by citizenship, and fundamentally reshaping who is considered American by the federal government. They would likely move to expand efforts to strip citizenship of immigrants who have been naturalized. President Trump wants to perpetuate a near-permanent second class of people in the U.S. – excluding individuals worthy of basic rights, and terrorizing their communities. 

Put simply: the fabric of America and our role in the world would drastically change for the worse, with deep harms echoing for generations to come.

A Biden Presidency

In contrast, a Biden presidency would present an opportunity not only to reverse the worst offenses of President Trump, but finally to overhaul a long failed system and create a humane, modern, and functional immigration system. 

But as much as any specific policy, the central question is whether a new President would understand that big change and creating an immigration system that upholds the best of America’s promise requires making this a priority on day one. Both President Bush and President Obama sought an immigration overhaul in the second, but not their first, terms; both efforts to pass an overhaul through Congress failed.

We know that the pathway back to recovery is being built by millions of essential, frontline workers, many of whom are trapped and stuck without legal status by our broken immigration system. True, inclusive recovery means we must restore opportunity and dignity for all people living in and rebuilding the U.S., including immigrants.  

A Biden presidency would be an opportunity to put this dark chapter—with attacks on Dreamers, family separation, drastic cuts to immigration, and more—behind us. To solve this crisis, we must go beyond just reversing the damage done over the last 4 years; we must transform our entire immigration system.

This path forward must start with creating a pathway for the 11 million undocumented immigrants to become citizens. It’s vital for the success of all American families, so that everyone can fully contribute, in the place we call home. 

 If we acknowledge that teachers, nurses, and those getting food to our families are all essential workers, among many others, then not only do we owe it to them, but our entire country will benefit by creating a pathway for them to contribute fully and thrive. Americans overwhelmingly support a pathway to citizenship to keep families together and give everyone a fair chance—and they expect their leaders to fight for them and an America where everyone can rebuild together.

The American public strongly supports immigrants and immigration – and in fact, their support has increased over President Trump’s term in office – but the profound damage done by his assaults on immigrant families and his unending efforts to cut legal immigration channels will take enormous work to undo. Our country is at a crossroads. The election is already underway; we find ourselves in a position where real change is possible, but only if a new administration prioritizes repairing and improving our badly broken immigration system from Day One. 

It is a moral and national imperative that we do so, because we will either set our country on a path that keeps families together and approaches our economic recovery with commonsense policies, or immigration policy will get much, much worse. President Trump has already made clear what kind of attacks on immigrants and immigration he would ramp up in a second term.

This is why it is so critical that if Vice President Biden wins in November, he follows through on his commitment to reforming our failed immigration system. As he has committed, this would include providing a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented people.  We can create a streamlined modern visa system so that people who want to come to contribute or unify their families can do so. This commitment also includes taking immediate action to ensure that immigrants here in the U.S., and those looking to come and help build our communities and economy, are able to contribute fully and thrive as we rebuild from this economic crisis. And Vice President Biden has pledged to make critical changes to immigration enforcement and priorities across the country.

Now more than ever, it’s clear that the only way to begin to undo the damage of the last four years is with Congress passing serious immigration reform alongside administrative reforms. The U.S. can rebuild from this crisis – but we can’t do it without the hard work and talents of millions of immigrants who are not only part of, but necessary to, the safety, security, and economic prosperity of our country. The choice could not be clearer in this election: only a Biden presidency can help us begin to recover, and ensure that immigrants and all Americans are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.

The election presents stark contrasts—but no reforms are won simply by an election. A Biden presidency calls a simple question: after years of watching vile attacks and xenophobic demogaguery, would a new president and his partners in Congress commit to doing everything they can to overhaul our immigration system? Yes, the election is a true fork in the road. Things will either get much, much worse, or they have a real opportunity to get much better. While the stakes could not be higher for this election, all scenarios will mean an incredible amount of work ahead.

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