After Joe Biden won the Democratic Party nomination, he made no adjustments to his aggressively pro‐immigration agenda. Some ideas—a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants—have long been standard Democratic Party positions, but Biden’s ideas went far beyond this. Biden’s platform was probably as pro‐immigrant as any winning candidate since Abraham Lincoln. Yet despite repeated attacks by President Trump, Biden stuck to his message—even on border and asylum issues which many see as the most difficult politically. With public opinion on immigration even further on his side than the presidential vote count, he has absolutely no reason to back down now.
Biden Stuck to a Pro‐Immigrant Message
The most remarkable moment in this campaign for me as an immigration analyst was when President Trump attacked Biden in the second presidential debate for the Obama‐Biden administration allowing what he calls “catch and release” of immigrants at the border. Rather than pivoting back to normal Democratic attacks about Trump’s child separation policy, Biden took Trump’s bait and launched into an extended defense of exactly what Trump was attacking him for—even going so far as to counter‐attack Trump for forcing Central American asylum seekers to live homeless in dangerous cities in Mexico.
Without Trump’s anti‐asylum policies, it is inevitable that the United States will have a very significant increase in immigrants requesting asylum. Of all the Trump policies, I believed—as many analysts still do—that these asylum restrictions would be the most difficult politically for Biden to end. Yet Biden took his few minutes on a national debate stage to assert that he’s willing to embrace greater acceptance of asylum seekers as a good thing. If the new administration accepts them all at ports of entry, grants them status and employment authorization, there will not even be the issue of immigrants breaking the law to create any potential political liability.
Little Reason to Change
Now that he appears to have beaten President Trump, will Biden suddenly reverse? It’s possible. It wouldn’t be the first time that Biden has flipped on immigration. But he absolutely no political reason to change. He won on a pro‐immigrant message. House Democrats won on a pro‐immigrant message.
Moreover, Biden is assuming office at a time when the public has never been more sympathetic to the pro‐immigrant cause. For the first time in its 55‐year history, Gallup’s immigration poll found more support for increasing than decreasing immigration (Figure 1). Support for immigration grows when Gallup only asks about legal immigration. More than three quarters tell Gallup that they believe immigration is a good thing. Pew Research Center polls find that large majorities reject that the arguments immigrants increase crime, that they tax the welfare state, and that they do not assimilate. Trump has actually lost ground even among Republicans on his anti‐immigration message, as I explained here.
Even the old President Obama advisors who oversaw the most deportations ever and will likely resurface in a Biden administration understand that they have a mandate from Biden to gut and replace Trump’s anti‐immigrant agenda in a way that they did not until very late in Obama’s term. I fully expect that the agencies will go beyond reversing them and create even better processes for immigrants—legal or otherwise. He will also push aggressively for Congress to enact legislation to create a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants and expand legal immigration.
Potential Problem Areas
The most likely problem areas for Biden are on guest worker visas. Biden said he wanted to make the H-2A and H-2B guest worker programs for lesser skilled seasonal jobs less “cumbersome, bureaucratic, and inflexible.” Moreover, Biden “will support expanding the number of high‐skilled visas.” But in both cases, he also falls into the erroneous labor union narrative that these visas can hurt U.S. workers and calls for strong enforcement of the “prevailing wage”—a made‐up governmental minimum wage for foreign workers.
In the case of the H-1B skilled worker visa, Biden specifically calls for greater restrictions on “entry level wages”—which could effectively stop the hiring of foreign college graduates by U.S. companies. Since nearly all employer‐sponsored foreign workers enter first on temporary visas, restricting them would do very significant harm to both employers, foreign workers, and U.S. workers in complementary positions.
Overall, Biden has given immigrant advocates a reason for optimism. He faced down President Trump’s attacks and doubled down on his pro‐immigrant positions. He may impose new restrictions on guest workers and not follow through on every campaign promise, but he will restart a legal immigration system that has almost entirely been stopped by this administration, and he will generally make positive reforms beyond that.