Biden’s immigration moves could help heal a nation

Democrats can knock out Trump’s support base if they win over Republicans on immigration, but it may take a deal to do it.

In this January 20, 2021, file photo, President Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. Six of Biden's 17 first-day executive orders dealt with immigration, such as halting work on a border wall in Mexico and lifting a travel ban on people from several predominantly Muslim countries [File: AP Photo/Evan Vucci]

Joe Biden has chosen to spend a large amount of his early administration’s political capital on reforming immigration policy.

Just look at a couple of the US president’s executive orders.

On January 20, the day of his inauguration, Biden ordered the termination of Trump’s prized US-Mexico border wall. The same day, he revoked a Trump directive that allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to arrest undocumented people with ease. Specifically, right after assuming office, Trump lifted Obama-era priorities on who should be arrested, giving federal immigration officials a “carte blanche” that they have used for the past four years to apprehend any undocumented immigrant that they saw fit to detain.

The Biden administration has also released a set of priorities for potential legislation, including a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who lack legal status and $4bn in aid to Central American countries to take aim at “root causes”, such as poverty and crime, that force people to migrate.

A cynic may interpret such proposals as Biden “sticking it” to Trump – just doing the opposite of what the former President did with respect to the politically charged issue of immigration.

But another way to read Biden’s moves on immigration is to see them as part of a smart political strategy.

Biden’s immigration proposals – if they bear fruit – could take away a galvanising issue from Republicans, as well as help solidify within the ranks of the Democratic party a new, growing group of voters.

On the former point, under Trump, immigration was repeatedly used to mobilise support.

Immediately after arriving at the White House, besides the order that empowered ICE, Trump issued his controversial travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries. Throughout his administration, Trump routinely threatened to remove federal funding for “sanctuary cities”. In these jurisdictions, local governments had passed ordinances that kept the operations of local law enforcement separate from federal authorities, restricting the former’s ability to help immigration authorities locate and arrest migrants. Trump’s efforts to force them to lift these ordinances largely failed.

There was also the policy of “zero tolerance”, which took minors from adults as they came into the United States to request asylum. Hundreds of children remain in the United States, separated from their family members, many of whom have been deported.

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, one thing that we now know from Trump’s divisive immigration practices is that his approach failed to curtail the flow of migrants into the United States.

Look no further than the approaching caravan of migrants from Central America.

Sure, Biden may appear more welcoming compared with Trump, which could factor into the calculations of those who are still travelling north. But the underlying conditions of crime and poverty that push people to leave countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras remain much the same as they were four years ago.

Even after the “zero tolerance” disaster, migrants continue to come to America in dispersed groups as well as caravans.

Regardless, Trump turned his immigration policy failures into political successes in terms of rallying support from his voters.

His failed efforts to force sanctuary cities to collaborate with federal immigration officers allowed him to repeatedly label them as Democrat-run “harbours of criminal behavior”, much like the periodic immigrant caravan gave Trump the chance to legitimise constructing a border wall.

So, resolving the debates surrounding immigration by passing comprehensive reform removes this trigger for Trump’s political base, delivering a body blow to the former president’s future political hopes.

Sure, this will rile up some of Trump’s most vocal supporters. But, at least according to a Pew Research Center poll from June of last year, a majority – 57 percent – of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters support the idea of granting some way for all undocumented immigrants to stay in the US legally.

Passing immigration reform, therefore, not only takes a key issue away from Trump but also divides Republicans. Biden can make an appeal to moderate Republicans that further makes the Trump faction of conservatives a minority on the right.

Also, in the long term, offering a pathway to citizenship provides Democrats with a way to bring more voters to their side.

This is not guaranteed, however, as has been seen in the Latino vote results from this past election. Specifically, Trump did well with Cuban-Americans in Florida and other immigrant communities in cities such as Chicago and New York, as well as in others along the Texas/Mexico border.

Still, it seems that Democrats are in a better position than Republicans overall to receive Latino support. The Latino vote nationally on average split roughly 70/30 in Biden’s favour. Even in Florida, Biden won the majority of Latinos despite Trump beating expectations.

The wider demographic point is that Latinos have grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades in terms of population when compared with African Americans and Non-Hispanic Whites. In part, this is due to the influx of migrants from Latin America, which tend to be younger than average Americans and, therefore, more likely to start families.

Banking on the expectation that this 70/30 vote will continue to favour the Democrats into the future is a good political investment.

Some Republicans do oppose Biden’s proposals for immigration. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has stated that he does not support “amnesty” – the idea that immigrants who currently lack legal status receive some form of documentation, whether in the form of work permit, residency or citizenship. Democrats will need support from the other side of the aisle to get a bill through the Senate, especially because without 60 votes, Republicans can use the filibuster to block legislation.

Team Biden has two options. One is to hope that some Republicans come to their side.

This may be a possibility as some in the GOP, such as Mitch McConnell, apparently want Trump gone from the party. Ending the immigration debate with a bipartisan showing to support Biden’s reform would help silence Trump by removing this central issue.

The other option is to trade.

Biden came into office with all kinds of policy priorities, from tackling climate change, to improving healthcare.

So, make a deal – instead of ending Trump’s lowering of the corporate tax rate, Democrats could agree to keep it where it is. Make Republican ideas on healthcare, such as allowing consumers to shop for plans across state lines, part of some reform package. Or, perhaps fracking and natural gas could become part of climate change plans.

Democrats could offer such policy items to Republicans in exchange for their votes for immigration reform.

More critically, we know the direction that widespread anti-immigrant sentiment can take our country. Why let such conditions fester? Biden has a plan that can help us turn the page on this issue and move forward. For the good of everyone, it is in the interests of both parties to make amends and agree on it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.