Immigration was the issue that helped propel Donald Trump to victory in 2016. This year, it has been largely sidelined by the pandemic. Polls show, in fact, that immigration is no longer a top concern. Voters say that the economy, terrorism, COVID-19 and racial justice are higher priorities, according to Gallup polling.
Yet, make no mistake: the 2020 election could have a tectonic impact on the future of U.S. immigration policy. And it will sway voters. Data from the advocacy group Immigration Hub shows that millions are open to shifting their vote depending on how the issue is framed.
If Trump wins, the administration will likely double down on its hardline immigration policy. Expect the White House to limit legal immigration and prioritize American workers over foreign workers. By contrast, if Biden wins, he and the Democrats in Congress are likely to take a more open policy on immigration, with fewer restrictions on foreign visas.
The DACA Debate
Under Trump, a resolution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is extremely unlikely. The program allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children—known as “Dreamers”—to obtain a renewable, two-year deferral that protects them from deportation. While the U.S. Supreme Court has prevented the administration from killing the program, Congress has so far failed to pass a bill to sustain the program or otherwise help Dreamers. Democrats have vowed to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would do exactly that
Biden, for his part, is hoping that Trump’s hardline position on immigration may motivate voters to support Democrats. He has vowed to immediately reverse Trump administration policies that separate parents and children at the border. During the debates, he made an issue of more than 500 children in U.S. detention facilities whose parents cannot be found. Biden also wants to end Trump’s asylum policies and has indicated he would roll back Trump’s newer restrictions on foreign workers and immigrants applying for visas.
More broadly, Biden has promised to dismantle the extensive changes Trump has made to the nation’s immigration system. Immigration experts say that may take more than one term in the White House, due to the intense volume and pace of the changes Trump made. The administration has taken more than 400 executive actions on immigration. One example of an action that could be difficult to change is the wealth test for immigrants, a complex, 217-page rule that could end up in court if rushed.
Overall, Biden is trying to present himself as someone who won’t just go back to the Obama era on immigration issues. He says his immigration plan is “significantly different” from that of the Obama administration, which allowed large numbers of deportations.
One area where he insists he will get something done is shepherding a long-stalled immigration reform bill that would offer a path to citizenship to unauthorized immigrants. Washington has failed for decades to get major immigration legislation done. But Biden has said he would work with Congress on a more comprehensive bill, an easier task if Democrats retake the Senate.
Biden has also proposed provisions that would guarantee fair wages for temporary workers, and create a new visa program that would allow cities to petition for more immigrants. In addition, Biden has said he would raise the refugee admissions cap. Biden has promised to take in up to 125,000 refugees in the year after he takes office. The U.S. is currently accepting fewer refugees than ever before: 18,000 this year, down from 110,000 when Trump took office.
One issue that is motivating progressive activists in this election is a call to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for deportations. ICE has gained strong opposition during the Trump administration. However, Biden has said he would reform the existing immigration agencies, rather than defunding or dismantling them.
That said, the calculus on immigration issues may have changed due to the recession and the pandemic. With massive unemployment, there may be a lower appetite for liberalizing U.S. immigration laws if voters are afraid immigrants will take away jobs.
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