Biden’s Immigration Policies Are Failing

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Source: The Progressive

It’s been more than four years since the Department of Justice, under the administration of Donald Trump, announced its infamous “zero-tolerance” policy for immigrants crossing the border without documentation. Under this draconian policy, federal agents and local law enforcement officers were ordered to detain and criminally charge immigrants, regardless of whether they were fleeing violence or seeking asylum. The most notorious aspect of the administration’s aggressive new approach was a policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.

These callous measures rank among the worst human rights violations in recent U.S. history. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, aided by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and police officers, smashed in doors and arrested immigrants in Gestapo-style raids; sobbing children were ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to undisclosed locations; asylum-seekers and other vulnerable immigrants were herded into crowded detention facilities in squalid conditions unfit for human beings. A House Judiciary Committee report on the family-separation policy, released in October 2020, concluded that the policy was “marked by reckless incompetence and intentional cruelty.”

Those who opposed the Trump Administration breathed a sigh of relief when Joe Biden was elected President in 2020, and when Democrats took control of the House in 2018, and the Senate in 2021. But after decades of being betrayed by politicians who had failed to live up to their campaign promises, more cautious observers soon noticed that the newly elected President was backtracking on his own campaign promises to roll back the previous administration’s assault on immigrants and their communities.

On February 2, 2021, Biden signed an Executive Order creating an interagency task force to identify immigrant children who had been separated from their families. By November of that year, the task force claimed that nearly 2,300 children had been reunited with their families. An additional 1,703 children had not yet been reunited. When news outlets began circulating reports that the Department of Justice might begin paying the families reparations for the psychological trauma inflicted upon them due to the separations, Biden dismissed the reports as “garbage” and said these reparations were “not going to happen.”

Sadly, the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Jordyn Rozensky wrote that, rather than changing course, the Biden Administration “routinely separates families through detention and deportation as part of its interior immigration enforcement practices, without meaningful policies designed to protect family unity.”

In June 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Central America to meet with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, whose administration has been marred by allegations of corruption. After the meeting, the two leaders held a press conference in which Harris delivered a startling message: “I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States–Mexico border: Do not come.”

The Vice President’s words, which echoed the hardline rhetoric of the Trump era, signified a shift in tone from the campaign trail. Further proof of this hardline approach can be found in Biden’s 2023 budget proposal, which seeks hundreds of millions of dollars for border surveillance technology and additional agents along the border.

“The Biden Administration has actually proposed ways to fortify . . . and militarize the borders even more than they were under Trump,” says Lindsay Koshgarian, program director of the National Priorities Project, a federal budget research group. “We definitely need a response [to the immigration issue], but what we need is a humanitarian response. The fact is, we know the United States has contributed to a lot of the root causes for why folks are leaving countries like Guatemala, Honduras, [and] El Salvador, some of the biggest sources for people coming over the border. We need to provide them with the help they need, helping them get asylum when it’s appropriate, and not meeting people with guns.”

An analysis by the National Priorities Project documents the following budget increases requested by the Biden Administration for 2023: $15.3 billion to CBP; $8.1 billion for ICE; $2.3 billion for Homeland Security Investigations, the main investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); $309 million for border enforcement technology; and $17.7 million for transporting noncitizens at the Southwest border.

Customs and Border Protection is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the United States, with tens of thousands of agents who treat the border like a war zone. In its CBP Fatal Encounters Tracker, as of June, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas had reported 230 fatal encounters with CBP personnel since 2010, including the deaths of sixteen children. This is likely a conservative estimate, considering that CBP is the least transparent and accountable of law enforcement agencies in the United States, according to the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

Additionally, in one of many recent problematic rulings from the Supreme Court, a 6-3 vote determined that Border Patrol agents are typically shielded from lawsuits concerning the use of excessive force on the grounds of “national security,” The Hill reported.

“President Biden has talked about a budget as a moral document. Well, he’s showing us where he stands morally.”

“Unfortunately what we’ve seen under the Biden Administration [is that] spending levels on ICE and Border Patrol [have remained] where they were under the Trump Administration,” Koshgarian says. “What they should have done is roll back all of the Trump budget increases for ICE and Border Patrol. It should have been one of the top things on their agenda. It was one of the areas where the Trump Administration did the most damage . . . . We’re still seeing large numbers of people in detention and large numbers of deportations.”

Cynthia Garcia, national campaigns manager for community protection at the youth-led organization United We Dream, tells The Progressive that Biden is choosing to expand “the deportation force that harms immigrants and people of color.”

“It’s disgraceful that after running a campaign about protecting immigrants, Biden is, yet again, funding ICE and CBP with billions of taxpayer dollars,” Garcia says. “President Biden has talked about a budget as a moral document. Well, he’s showing us where he stands morally.”

Mexico also has agreed to increase funding for border security. After a July 12 meeting at the White House, Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that Mexico would spend $1.5 billion over the next two years to upgrade “smart” border technology. In return, Biden agreed to issue more migrant work visas and accept more refugees.

One of the more damaging policies left from the Trump administration is Title 42, which before Trump was a seldom-invoked section of the U.S. Code that enables federal health officials to bar immigrants from entering the country if they perceive a risk of spreading communicable diseases. The Trump Administration, which downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, also used the crisis as an opportunity to implement anti-immigrant policies under Title 42.

While many public health experts urged the Biden Administration to end the use of Title 42 in immigration cases, it remained government policy to do so until April, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally announced its termination. But just days before the CDC order was to take effect on May 23, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana blocked the lifting of Title 42, claiming it violated administrative law and would cause “irreparable harm,” according to The Texas Tribune.

Yet opposition to the lifting of Title 42 isn’t solely coming from Trump appointees and Republicans. The “Public Health and Border Security Act,” for example, which would “require all COVID-19 related national states of emergency to be lifted before Title 42 is officially terminated,” was introduced in April by Senators James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, along with nine other Senators—including Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia.

Dawn Wooten, a single mother of five, used to work as a full-time nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, which was operated by the private contractor LaSalle Corrections. Though she was not officially terminated by her employer, she wasn’t called back to work after she began speaking out about unimaginable atrocities being committed against immigrant detainees there. Wooten shared disturbing accounts of medical misconduct at the center, including the refusal by authorities to screen detainees for COVID-19, the destruction of medical records, and even worse, invasive gynecological procedures—including hysterectomies—performed on women detainees against their will. Wooten referred to Mahendra Amin, the Georgia obstetrician-gynecologist who allegedly performed the forced hysterectomies, as “the uterus collector.” Amin, via his lawyer, has “vigorously” denied the allegations.

The nonprofit group Project South filed a whistleblower complaint on behalf of Wooten, and 173 members of Congress demanded that the Office of Inspector General at DHS investigate. Dozens of women then filed a class-action lawsuit against ICE, Amin, and LaSalle Corrections. In May 2021, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered ICE to end its contract with the Irwin County Detention Center, stating in a memo to ICE Director Tae Johnson, “[W]e will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention,” according to a press release by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which currently represents Wooten. Wooten’s lead attorney at GAP, Dana Gold, tells The Progressive that Wooten is still waiting for the Inspector General’s Office to conclude its investigations into her disclosures and retaliation complaint.

“Without her disclosures, the facility would still be mutilating women,” Gold says. “Whistleblowers have become one of the most powerful vehicles to crack open and drive accountability in this opaque system, which is sad, because the cost to whistleblowers is incredibly high. Dawn has been completely blacklisted as a nurse, when she should have her choice of jobs during a pandemic. She’s paid a real cost for doing the right thing.”

The Government Accountability Project also represents other whistleblowers who have sounded the alarm about abuses at immigration detention facilities. Thanks to the efforts of Wooten and the work of advocacy groups, in addition to the Irwin County Detention Center, the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, was also shut down.

Unfortunately, these types of abuses at detention facilities aren’t isolated incidents. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, Florida, has a history of “racialized violence, sexually abusive behavior, medical neglect, and inhumane treatment of immigrants.” CREW and the ACLU of Florida filed a federal lawsuit in April against ICE and the National Archives and Records Administration, accusing Glades officials of deleting surveillance videos that could verify claims of abuse by detainees.

In June 2021, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a New York–based human rights organization led by health professionals, along with the ACLU, published “Behind Closed Doors: Abuse and Retaliation Against Hunger Strikers in U.S. Immigration Detention,” a report that examines the abusive treatment by ICE employees of hunger strikers from 2013 to 2020, during the administrations of both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In response to the appalling conditions at many ICE facilities, some detainees have protested the inhumane treatment with hunger strikes. Those hunger strikes have been met with harsh punishment and excessive force, including the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings, forced feeding, hydration, and catheterization, solitary confinement, and retaliatory deportations, the report said.

“There is still a great deal of secrecy around abuses against hunger strikers in detention, but media and NGO reports indicate that these abuses have continued into Biden’s presidency,” Joanna Naples-Mitchell, a research adviser for PHR and co-author of “Behind Closed Doors,” tells The Progressive.

Following the report’s publication, members of PHR and the ACLU met with Biden Administration officials in July 2021, to push for an end to the harsh conditions in immigrant detention facilities. To date, Naples-Mitchell says, “PHR has yet to see a significant policy shift on the treatment of hunger strikers.”

Historically, Democratic and Republican leaders have worked together on issues involving the “trinity of bipartisanship”—funding for the Pentagon, law enforcement agencies, and immigration enforcement agencies. As the Institute for Policy Studies noted, for the last two decades, the United States has spent $21 trillion “on foreign and domestic militarization.”

“This is part of a larger problem of militarization in this country,” the National Priorities Project’s Koshgarian says. “Our first priority would be to cut funding for Border Patrol and ICE, for putting people behind bars, [and] for arming Border Patrol with military weapons. We need a bigger overhaul of our immigration system . . . . We need to open the door for people to realize this country has perfectly adequate resources to take care of everyone here, and then some.”

“We need to open the door for people to realize this country has perfectly adequate resources to take care of everyone here, and then some.”

The problems with immigration law enforcement long preceded Trump. In 2003, ICE and CBP were created by the Homeland Security Act as agencies within DHS. For nearly two decades, their budgets have consistently increased, and their powers have been expanded, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats have occupied the White House or controlled the Congress.

“Biden continues to fund taxpayer dollars into the agencies, showing where his priorities are, [and] how mistaken his leadership is [in] thinking they will be able to bring Republicans on board by pandering to border enforcement,” United We Dream’s Garcia says. “They are not going to get on our side, and they’re not going to protect immigrants at any cost. We need bolder leadership [and] more direct action from this administration.”

The doctrine of white supremacy that was at the core of Trump’s domestic policies continues to plague U.S. institutions. In reality, Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant policies were merely a continuation of this country’s tragic legacy of oppressing marginalized peoples. It’s a tradition that everyone—from citizens to elected officials—must wholeheartedly reject.

Sadly, the human rights violations committed against immigrants, and the irreparable harm they have caused immigrant communities, seem to have largely faded from the national discussion these days. The failure by Democratic leaders to shift their approach on immigration policy and to seek justice for the victims should not be overlooked. Instead, people must increase pressure for change and demand greater accountability.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the inaction of Democrats or the actively harmful actions of Republicans, people are still able to organize and take care of each other,” Garcia says. “This is the moment [to] scale up the way we organize and show up for one another.”


Mike Kuhlenbeck is a freelance journalist and National Writers Union member based in Des Moines, Iowa.

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