Biden proposes immigration overhaul in shadow of obama record

Jennifer Epstein
Bloomberg

Joe Biden said Wednesday he would reverse Donald Trump’s immigration policies during his first 100 days in office while renewing a push for Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul and boosting aid to three key Central American countries to $4 billion over four years.

Biden issued his immigration plan months after most of his Democratic rivals, a sign of how tricky an issue it is for the former vice president. He has faced criticism by activists and opponents for his fierce defense of Obama administration immigration policies, which included deporting 3 million people.

Two aides briefing reporters on the proposals on the condition of anonymity cast him as being determined to protect immigrants – including asylum seekers and refugees – and their communities.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Nashua, N.H. Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019.

The immigration plan, along with the Central America policy, were released just before he appeared before the Culinary Workers Local 226 to seek their endorsement. The Culinary Workers are Nevada’s largest union and a key political organizing force in the state. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both made appearances before them earlier this week. Biden has led Nevada polls by an average of 9 points, according to Real Clear Politics, with Sanders and Warren battling for second place. Nevada’s population is about 28% Hispanic.

Biden has said he would take immediate action to protect Dreamers – young adults who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children – and their families by reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that includes a path to citizenship. The Trump administration stopped accepting applications for the program in 2017 and the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to that move, which could moot Biden’s plan – or make it more complicated.

He would also reverse the Trump administration’s asylum policies aimed at dramatically restricting migrants seeking humanitarian protection in the U.S. He would also undo the Trump administration’s national emergency that directs Defense Department money to border wall construction and its preference for lengthy detention periods over what Trump calls “catch and release.” Biden would also raise the annual refugee admission cap to 125,000 and aim to raise it over time.

Biden intends to spend $4 billion in four years to help Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador improve their economic and security situations, which push their residents to emigrate. Earlier this year, the Trump administration suspended aid to those countries amid Trump’s frustration over continued border crossings, only to restart it in October. The money for the plan would come from reprioritizing Department of Homeland Security detention funding, Biden’s campaign said.

Much of the criticism Biden has faced on immigration has centered on the Obama administration’s deportations. Biden’s plan would, like Obama’s policy, prioritize the removal of national security threats and serious criminals, while blocking mass raids at workplaces, schools, hospitals and houses of worship. The aides previewing his proposal did not explain how that would be different from Obama’s approach, which Biden has repeatedly defended.

At two debates, in July and September, Biden was pressed by moderators and by rivals to concede that the Obama administration’s policy was a mistake or that he advised Obama against the policy. He refused.

Biden told Telemundo’s Jos Daz-Balart, under repeated pressure to apologize for the deportations, that he had “nothing” to be sorry for. He argued that he and Obama did the best they could under the existing laws and deflected, as he has at other times, to a more favorable comparison to Trump’s aggressive push to crack down on migration from Central America.

“I think what we should be doing is acknowledging that comparing what President Obama did and what Trump did is night and day,” Biden said in a nod to Trump’s attempt last year to implement a “zero tolerance” policy on what it deemed to be illegal border crossings, a policy that led to the separation of thousands of children in just a few months.

During September’s debate, Biden made the false blanket claim that the Obama administration “didn’t lock people up in cages, we didn’t separate families.” The Department of Homeland Security used cage-like enclosures made of metal fencing to hold migrants as far back as 2014. The Obama administration, like George W. Bush’s administration before it, separated adults and children when it suspected human trafficking or other dangerous conditions.

Approached by pro-immigration protesters at a South Carolina town hall last month, Biden was similarly argumentative, telling them “you should vote for Trump.” They’d asked him to commit to stopping all deportations if elected, but Biden said he would not do so. “No. I will not stop all deportations. I will prioritize deportations, only people who have committed a felony or serious crime,” he said. “No matter what happens, somebody who commits murder should be deported.”

(Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)