Immigration policy has been a hot topic of conversation under the Trump administration but not in a good way. ICE has terrorized communities, immigrants have been kept in cages, and children have been separated from their families at the border—hundreds of whom have still not been reunited. Trump’s racist rhetoric, labeling immigrants as “criminals” (or worse), has contributed to a negative image of these individuals, despite the fact that they are humans. We have left immigrants, specifically those who are undocumented, without life-saving aid during a global pandemic and have left thousands of children and adults with immeasurable trauma.
It is easy to hail Biden’s victory as a win for the immigrant community, but we cannot get complacent or lose sight of the bigger issue. While the atrocities committed at the border under the Trump administration are just that, our immigration system as a whole has been broken and dehumanizing since long before Trump took office. Biden’s victory will not fix this system without serious institutional changes, including abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Immediately following the creation of ICE, shortly after 9/11, critics were already questioning whether it was really necessary. In fact, even conservatives were arguing that it should be merged with CBP and that many of the “national security” agencies seemed to have overlapping responsibilities. In response to this, ICE began to expand the focus of its operations in an effort to justify its existence. ICE moved from detaining people who had committed crimes and those committing fraud to trying to meet a detainee quota in detention centers and focusing on those crossing the border with children, trying to find work, or even seeking asylum (in large part due to political instability caused by the U.S. in the 1970s and '80s).
It is important to remember that this didn’t all happen under the Trump administration, or even just under conservative rule. The Obama administration had a questionable record on immigration, with Obama being termed the “deporter-in-chief.” His administration deported a record number of individuals, even in comparison to the Trump years. The focus of this enforcement was on those who had committed crimes and those who had recently arrived, rather than on those who had established lives in the US and did not have records. He also started the DACA program, providing protections to individuals brought to the US as children without legal status, which has its problems but was a clear and important victory for the immigrant community.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on immigration policy (and am, in fact, far from it), but even I can see the stark contrast from this to the chaos under the Trump administration. The Obama administration was not perfect, but at least Obama’s immigration enforcements fell only on recent arrivals and those who had committed crimes. I’m not saying that this was correct, as I believe that newly-arrived immigrants are in need of help rather than punishment, but the Obama approach was still far less harmful than Trump’s. From the very beginning of his campaign he had a clear view of all immigrants: They’re criminals, they’re “illegal," they’re “stealing” jobs, and they need to be removed from the country. After his election, individuals who had been here for 20 years and had families had a very real and ever-present fear of deportation—affecting not only their quality of life but also those of their children and family, even if they were not themselves personally victimized by ICE.
Trump didn’t care about nuance, nor did he care about actually finding those who had committed crimes. The focus of his administration was on pure numbers and to deport any and everyone who did not have documentation, starting from just days after his inauguration. This has led to the apprehension and deportation of individuals who have been living in the United States for years, have started or raised families, have been working and paying taxes, and have been key parts of their communities. It has led to people being deported to a country that they do not remember. This is absolutely ridiculous. With an immigration system that does not provide paths to citizenship, what do we expect to happen? And how can we act like punishing those who have been just trying to get by is OK when we live in a country where actual criminals get by without any repercussions (such as Brock Turner or Trump himself)?
These types of deportations are ridiculous, despicable, and counterintuitive, but the most abhorrent part of Trump’s immigration policy is the treatment of immigrants at the border, specifically at detention centers. He has increased the time that children spend in detention, and his policy of family separation has caused needless trauma for individuals already dealing with the issues that led them to decide to migrate. These detention centers are inhumane, unsafe, and unsanitary. Keeping children in cages is not a form of “homeland security," it is a manifestation of the view that this administration holds on immigrants as less than human.
The U.S. has a long history of performing medical experiments on people of color without their consent, from the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment to the robbery of Henrietta Lacks’ cells. Trump’s administration has continued this shocking practice, as a recent whistleblower report reveals, including performing gynecological procedures on women in detention centers without their consent, even things as invasive and permanent as hysterectomies. And in the midst of a global pandemic, in which undocumented individuals were left out of aid bills, those in ICE detention centers were similarly disregarded and, due to the public charge rule, scared to seek help that they were eligible for. Reports indicate that officials have allowed COVID-19 to run rampant in these centers, as individuals are living in extremely close proximity and are not given an adequate supply of things like soap and masks. Deportations also continued without testing individuals, likely exporting the virus to developing countries with a less-developed medical system. In fact, at one point, 20% of all known COVID-19 cases in Guatemala were composed of those deported from the U.S. All of this combines to make clear that to the Trump administration immigrants and those from countries like Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador are disposable and inferior and not only should not be in our country without documentation but also do not deserve even a semblance of basic human decency.
Needless to say, it is absolutely a win for the immigrant community (and those who care about other people) to see Trump lose the election. Biden has made promises to reverse many of Trump’s policies early on in his presidency, which is very much a good thing. However, it is not enough to go back to the status quo, of sorts, and push immigrants back into the shadows. We must keep them in conversation, and we must continue to push for reform that provides paths to citizenship and treats people with the humanity that they deserve. We must push Biden to do things like abolish ICE and actually change our immigration system. Immigration has become a hotly contested issue in the political sphere, and it is quite possible (and likely) that Biden will forego more “radical” policies in order to try to placate the GOP and moderate Democrats. We cannot settle for that kind of inaction. It is up to us, those with the privilege to have citizenship or legal status, and especially those of us who are white, to advocate for and uplift immigrants and their demands. After all of the horror that this country has inflicted, this is the least that we can do.