A lasting legacy of President Trump’s immigration policies will be his administration’s willingness to acknowledge and address the broad scope and wide spectrum of how immigration—both legal and illegal—impacts American life.
Our political debates tend to regress into entrenched and cyclical discussions of border security and amnesty for illegal populations, a polarized framing that ignores how significantly our labor policies, law enforcement practices, and even the shape of our congressional representation, are affected by the choices we make concerning immigration.
In a series of 400 executive orders over the course of four years, the Trump Administration sought to cast a wide net over the various facets of American life touched by our migration policy, both at the border and beyond.
From the Border, To the Boardroom, To Congress
At the border, the administration addressed the perverse incentives baked into our outdated asylum laws—an area where every administration has been compelled to act, because Congress will not.
Previous administrations have chosen to continue a practice known as “catch and release.” The policy, which releases asylum-seekers into the interior of the country to await hearings that are usually years away, incentivizes illegal crossings and directly facilitates the horrific exploitation of women and children by drug cartels. Rather than perpetuate it, the Trump Administration ended it.
Under a policy known as “Remain in Mexico,” asylees await processing in Mexican border towns. The policy, along with measures designed to speed up the hearing process as well as asylum cooperation agreements with other South American countries, has dramatically reduced the number of illegal crossings at the border. It is imperfect for a variety of reasons, but with Congress unmoved to actually solve the problem, it is the most effective set of protocols to reduce both crime and crossings at the border, to date.
In a cooperative effort between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor, the Trump Administration initiated regulatory action to clarify that the H-1B highly skilled guest worker program should compliment, rather than replace, the American workforce. These regulations will make it harder for large corporations to fire their American workers and replace them with underpaid foreign labor—long an area of bipartisan concern.
The Trump Administration also took the step of limiting apportionment—the process for redrawing congressional districts after each U.S. Census—to populations of only American citizens. While a state’s total population will still be used to generate distribution of federal resources, the administration argued that congressional representation should be exclusively accountable to American voters in the same way that jury service, the draft, voting, and financially participating in the election process is exclusive to citizens.
Failing to make this distinction allows states who take “sanctuary” status—that is, openly violating federal immigration law by prohibiting their law enforcement from working with immigration officials—to benefit politically from incentivizing illegal immigration. California, for example, is a sanctuary state estimated to have four additional congressional seats due to their illegal immigrant population.
The Biden Administration’s Return to “Normal”
That so much of the changes in our immigration system are done by the executive speaks to congressional unwillingness to address complicated and politically perilous issues. But it also throws the country’s policies into regular periods of whiplash: what is done by one president can, and generally is, undone by the next president.
And it appears that Joe Biden intends to undo most of Trump’s actions. Though the media often fail to provide an accurate relative comparison, the Obama-Biden Administration wasn’t too far a departure from the Trump Administration on several key issues. The Obama Administration deported more illegal crossers than Trump, detained minors in the same cage-like structures used by the Trump Administration, and tried to reduce illegal crossings by telling migrants “do not send your children to the borders.”
Biden, however, has signaled a less aggressive tone. He has indicated he would reinstate and bolster the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, seek amnesty for America’s roughly 11 million to 20 million illegal immigrants, stop construction of Trump’s border wall, and end the Remain in Mexico policy—a move one recently retired Border Patrol chief said “will invite chaos.”
Biden’s language around immigration policies is reflective of the polarized trenches in which our national dialogue takes place. It’s moralizing, focused on “human dignity” and “compassion” but ignores the messier consequences of Biden’s immigration policy choices: the uptick in trafficking that will necessarily follow reduced border enforcement, the exploitation of women and children, and easy, repeat return of those who would do Americans harm.
Biden has also said very little about how he will handle the domestic elements of Trump’s immigration agenda, which modified guest worker programs to prioritize American workers over the corporate industry’s preference for cheap foreign labor. Though the campaign hasn’t been specific, Biden’s political appointees have long ties to corporate America and Silicon Valley, suggesting that those policies may be deemphasized, if not rendered ineffective or completely undone.
The Meaning of Citizenship
Whether or not one agrees with the actions of the Trump Administration, his four years reflected a willingness to ask critical questions and raise fundamental truths about the interplay between our immigration policies and our self-government.
Immigration policy is generally couched in values-driven language. And, yes, humanity and compassion do play a role. America, for decades, has accepted more refugees than any other country in the world.
Even under President Trump’s lowered refugee caps, the United States remained a top country in the world for refugees in need of resettlement. But our policy choices echo further than the sheen of moral gloss. They redefine what it is to work and live in America as a citizen.
Too often, attempts at this aspect of the discussion are dismissed with shrieking allegations of racism. But it’s a disingenuousreaction, to avoid having an actual policy discussion about the trade-offs involved with corporate exploitation of cheap labor, the social and fiscal implications of allowing a shadow population of undocumented people to coexist alongside legal residents, and the implications this has on how our government acts, and for whom.
These used to be carefully considered questions. In the past, generations of foreigners became Americans because they wanted to—and because American society demanded it of them. Millions of immigrants, including those in my own family, aspired to be part of America and be granted the “privileges and immunities” of its citizenship.
But today, the elites in our ruling class want to cheapen citizenship. What was once cherished as a privilege is now merely a political chit. Illegal immigrants are less likely to be considered future citizens, in the full sense of the American tradition, than to be seen as clients who can be granted voting rights in exchange for political support.
Donald Trump was hardly a philosopher, but he seemed innately to grasp that the process of coming to America—of electing to join the uniquely liberal Western tradition and the respectful but fierce independence of the world’s freest and greatest country—was special and should mean something; That America itself should be a nation that first and foremost acts for its citizens and their shared conception of liberty and justice for all.
The Trump Administration had policy blunders and imperfections, to be sure, but its pursuits were not meaningless, and reflected a willingness to grapple with the fullness of what our immigration policy choices mean for America, and what they more broadly should require of those who seek to become links in the great chain of America’s founding traditions.
Our national dialogue will, to a great extent, lose this resonance under a Biden presidency. It will sink back into polarized corners, where lazy virtue signaling takes the place of rigorous debate about the trade-offs of our most significant policy choices. Whatever lessons we take away from Trump’s immigration policy legacy, first among them should be that our immigration policy should have as its focus the dogged preservation of America’s free-thinking, free-praying, free-speaking, and free-opportunity traditions as the greatest global ideal. And that the making and keeping of the “privileges and immunities” granted to its citizens is among our worthiest pursuits.