On day one of his presidency, Joe Biden signed numerous executive orders to undo his predecessor’s “deeply inhumane” anti-immigrant policies. These included reversing the “Muslim ban,” ensuring non-citizens are counted in the census, pulling back on the harsh deportation priorities of the past four years, and cutting off funds to Donald Trump’s most vaunted border wall with Mexico. For many among us who feared that Biden would hesitate to use his presidential power to undo Trump’s damage, these actions offer immediate vindication of the idea that there is indeed a difference to the lives of marginalized human beings between having a Democrat versus a Republican in the White House.
Anticipating Biden’s executive actions on immigration, the Trump administration created some potentially difficult hurdles to Biden’s agenda, via a series of so-called Sanctuary for Americans First Enactment (SAFE) agreements between a handful of states and the Department of Homeland Security, which signed them during Trump’s final days in office. These agreements require cooperation between the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies and require a 180-day notice of intent to terminate. It was Trump’s parting shot to a nation that uses and abuses immigrant labor, revenue, culture, and other benefits.
But President Biden has not restricted himself to executive actions on immigration. He has sent an outline of a comprehensive immigration bill to Congress for consideration that has as its centerpiece a pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented residents of the nation. It is a bold move but precisely the correct one in a nation reeling from four toxic years of Donald Trump. Given that Trump rode into office on the winds of anti-immigrant hate that he vigorously fanned during his campaign, it is fitting that Biden begins his term by undoing the damage by whatever means he can—legislative and executive action.
With a view to the long-term problems of immigration, Biden’s proposed bill includes a mechanism for immigrants registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to immediately apply for legal residency if they meet certain work or educational criteria. Those enrolled in the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, as well as farmworkers, will also be eligible for the same. Others in the nation without papers as of January 1, 2021, would have a five-year pathway to legal residency if they pay their taxes and pass a background check, and then have the option of pursuing citizenship three years later.
It will not be an easy task to pass such a bill. For decades, congressional failure to tackle immigration reform has stemmed from a toxic recipe that includes one-part Republican intransigence and one-part Democratic spinelessness. Those two forces have worked in tandem to ensure the nation marches ever-rightward. Democrats will need to adopt the combative and aggressive posture that Republicans do when they cut safety net programs or hand more money to billionaires.
As if on cue, Republicans denounced the bill before they had even read it. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called it “blanket amnesty,” while Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas denounced it as “total amnesty.” Iowa senator and top-ranking Republican Chuck Grassley echoed the same, calling it “mass amnesty,” and a “nonstarter.” Even Trump’s former White House adviser Stephen Miller, the architect of the cruelest anti-immigrant policies of the past four years, and who by all rights ought to disappear from public view in shame, had the audacity to speak out against the bill.
When Republican critics of the Biden immigration plan use the word “amnesty” to refer to an arduous pathway to citizenship, they are already playing hardball. By characterizing the plan in these terms, they are once more playing into nativist sentiments in the American public to stoke mass resentment and imply that those breaking U.S. law will simply be forgiven without consequence. It is the same dangerous impulses that gave rise to Trump.
If anything, the word “amnesty” when used in relation to immigrants ought to be associated most directly with the GOP demigod Ronald Reagan, whose signature on a sweeping immigration bill helped nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. In order to reconcile the cognitive dissonance on Reagan’s mythical status and their racist anti-immigrant hate, conservatives turned to their favorite pastime: claiming the opposite is true. In a 2013 op-ed, Cotton claimed that Reagan considered the bill to be “the biggest mistake of his presidency.” More recently, former Arizona state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Kelli Ward echoed the same, saying it was Reagan’s “biggest regret.” It was not.
A researcher with the Niskanen Center, wrote on the far-right website the Daily Caller that the claim of Reagan’s regret is built on hearsay and concluded that “Reagan would understand that his law failed to stop illegal immigration, not because we allowed people to stay, but because we refused to allow more to come.” He added, “in his farewell address, he said he wanted an America ‘open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.’ That doesn’t sound like regret to me.”
Indeed, various times over many years, Republicans have openly backed immigration reform that offered pathways to citizenship. “The reason we have Donald Trump as a nominee today is because we as Republicans have failed on this issue,” said former Republican congressman Raúl Labrador, a Tea Party conservative who was one of the “gang of eight,” a bipartisan group of lawmakers who came tantalizingly close to pushing through comprehensive immigration reform during President Barack Obama’s second term. Even Fox News’ virulently nativist host Sean Hannity said nearly a decade ago, “If people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done.”
The Trump presidency revealed just what is wrought when anti-immigrant sentiment infuses the ideology of a political party. By any ethical standard, the GOP ought to have been cowed after four years of shamelessly backing a president openly seething with a hatred for nonwhites and who after fanning the flames of racism for years guided his white supremacist mob to attack the Capitol itself. But Republicans have proven over and over again that there is no depth to which they will not fall to declare self-righteous shock at the barest hint of progress if it is under Democratic leadership. Regardless of political brinkmanship, the well-being, safety and security of millions of human beings are at stake, people who are forced to exist in the margins of a society that is content with exploiting them indefinitely.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.