Biden's Homeland Security Pick Is No Border Softie

Biden’s choice to lead his Department of Homeland Security indicates the new administration won’t be embracing open borders.

Biden's Homeland Security Pick Is No Border Softie
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden yells to the audience after speaking in Wilmington, U.S. (Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg)

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end many of Trump's harsh new immigration policies. But his choice of Alejandro Mayorkas to lead his Department of Homeland Security indicates the new administration won't be embracing open borders, or even crafting especially welcoming policies toward migrants arriving over the Mexican border.

President Donald Trump’s harsh treatment of immigrants was one of the most contentious issues of his first three years in office, and Biden will certainly expect Mayorkas to take a kinder approach toward asylum seekers, refugees and the undocumented.

Biden probably will reverse many of Trump's signature initiatives: separated families, kids in cages, sweeps through so-called sanctuary cities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and the ban on travel from many majority-Muslim countries. “Dreamers” who have never known any other home than the U.S. will be safe under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump tried to cancel.

ICE intrusions into communities will be curbed, families will be reunited and conditions in immigrant detention camps will improve dramatically. But when it comes to the thorny issue of Central American asylum seekers, Biden's policy is unlikely to swing in a direction radically opposite to the one under Trump.

Mayorkas has publicly signaled his sympathy with migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. And he helped design the DACA program when he served under President Barack Obama as deputy secretary of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE and the Border Patrol. 

But the Obama administration had its own tough border policies, and the selection of Mayorkas may signal Biden's desire to continue with that approach. Obama presided over a record number of deportations -- surpassing even Trump in raw numbers -- though he focused mainly on deporting those who committed serious crimes.

When a surge of Central Americans came north in 2014, Obama enacted policies that, while nowhere near as severe as Trump’s, were explicitly intended to deter migrants.

Biden, then serving as vice president, told Guatemalans in 2014:

Years of witnessing Trump’s cruelty will temper that harsh message substantially. But the fact remains that both Biden and Mayorkas are veterans of an administration that also saw caravans of asylum seekers as a problem.

In the 2010s, a wave of families came seeking refuge from the poor and violent countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. This wave was only a fraction of the number of people who had immigrated from Mexico in previous decades, but the sight of tens of thousands of destitute Central American families streaming north alarmed many conservatives.

Compounding this was the fact that the U.S. system didn’t really have a good way to deal with large numbers of people crossing the border illegally and then turning themselves in to authorities and requesting asylum. It generally wasn't possible to tell whether these people were coming for economic reasons or to escape the endemic violence that plagues many Central American countries -- in fact, it was probably almost always a mix of both. And even if judges decided most migrants didn’t deserve asylum, the long waiting periods before their hearings tempted some to slip away to live in the U.S. without documents.

Trump’s policies quashed that asylum wave. In addition to the cruel treatment, Trump deployed a blizzard of legal changes. He tightened the standards for granting asylum, required many migrants to remain in Mexico while awaiting their hearings, and struck agreements that sent many asylum seekers to Central American countries different from their origin nation. As a result, the border surge had fizzled out even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck:

Biden's Homeland Security Pick Is No Border Softie

If Biden hits reverse too hard, it could cost him politically. In economic terms, a few hundred thousand Central American migrants will do little to hurt the U.S., but their presence will rile up law-and-order voters who bristle at the notion of people crossing the border illegally or skipping out on asylum hearings. That could hurt Biden with constituencies like Hispanic voters who live in the Texas border counties that swung hard to Trump in 2020.

That means that the new administration is highly unlikely to embrace radical pro-immigration ideas like open borders, or recent Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro’s call to decriminalize unauthorized border crossing. 

Instead, Biden and Mayorkas will probably try to accept asylum seekers from Central America at a slow and ordered pace. Detention will probably persist, in a much more humane form. And Biden may even negotiate new, though less rigid, agreements to keep some asylum seekers at home as the administration tries to improve living conditions in those countries.

In other words, expect Biden’s policy toward Central American migrants to be more welcoming than Obama’s, but not nearly as welcoming as many activists would like.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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