Posted on February 24, 2021

Why Biden Is Tackling Immigration Now

Giovanni Russonello, New York Times, February 22, 2021

President Biden took a major step last week to slow deportations, and his allies in Congress unveiled a bill that would represent the country’s most sweeping immigration overhaul in generations.

{snip} With so much on their priorities list, why are Democrats targeting this issue now?

For one, advocates say, the time has simply come. Polling data shows that the country largely objected to President Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and in fact grew considerably more favorable to immigration over the course of his administration.

And Democrats are eager to shore up support from Latino voters in particular, who did not back Biden as strongly in November as his campaign had hoped — particularly in parts of Florida, Texas and Arizona. His primary campaign focused significantly less on Hispanic outreach than did that of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Biden’s main rival, who handily won the Latino vote in Democratic nominating contests. Without meaningful action, advocates say, Biden risks causing further disillusionment among Latino voters.

“Latinos — and in our research, even swing Latinos who voted for Trump — want to see Democrats deliver something on immigration,” Carlos Odio, a co-founder of the Latino-focused data firm EquisLabs, said in an interview. “Part of what created an opening for Donald Trump was the idea that both parties were the same on this issue.”

Biden’s administration on Thursday moved to significantly curtail deportations, ordering immigration agents to seek federal approval before moving to deport undocumented people who have been in the United States for a considerable amount of time without committing felonies or being classified as national security threats.


As Democratic lawmakers unveiled their legislative proposal on Thursday, they framed it as a deliberate rejection of the Trump administration’s approach. {snip}

The bill would pave a pathway to citizenship for nearly all the undocumented immigrants living in the United States, increase legal immigration, and speed up consideration of asylum seekers. It would also take steps to secure the country’s borders and ports of entry, while investing $4 billion in the economies of Central American countries to lessen the incentive for emigration. And it would strike the word “alien” from federal law in favor of “noncitizen.”

To say that this represents a break with past approaches to immigration reform would be an understatement. The last time Congress passed major reform was in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a law making it illegal for employers to hire immigrants without papers.


Trump rose to the Republican nomination, and then the presidency, partly on the strength of his opposition to immigration, and the racial overtones it allowed him to sound. His draconian border policies may have been the defining issue of his presidency, and helped rally his base around his conservative populism.

But the Republican base isn’t the country at large, and those hard-line policies provoked a strong counterreaction. The share of the country saying that the level of immigration into the country should be decreased had fallen to 28 percent by the final year of Trump’s presidency, according to Gallup — down from 38 percent in 2016, and from as high as 65 percent two decades earlier.

By 2020, the number of Americans saying immigration should either be kept at its current level or increased reached seven in 10, the highest on record.

At the end of Trump’s term, a majority of the country — 52 percent — said that he had taken the country in the wrong direction on immigration issues, Gallup found, with just 33 percent saying he had made progress.

Still, that 33 percent was considerably higher than those saying that either Obama or Bush had actually gained ground at the end of their terms, according to past Gallup data. This reflects the lingering importance of immigration to Trump’s base, which continues to represent a little under a third of the country’s adult population.