What immigration policy do Democrats want, if any?

March 27, 2021 • 10:45 am

It seems that in the last three months we’ve veered between the xenophobic and inhumane immigration policies of Trump (“we’re gonna build a wall, and let Mexico pay for it”) and the more humane attitude towards immigration of the Biden administration, but with a policy so nebulous that, to me, it often seems to approach “open borders.”  And I’ve haven’t heard either Biden or prominent Democrats admit that there’s a crisis at our southern border (one in which unaccompanied children are sent across), or that it’s motivated by the change in administrations, with immigrants expecting an easier go of it under Biden, or even say that we need some legislation or executive action pronto.

In his Weekly Dish column (click on screenshot below if you subscribe), Sullivan takes the Dems to task for what, to him, is cluelessness about immigration.

According to Sullivan, what is it about immigration that the Democrats don’t get—or, perhaps, refuse to admit? First, that there’s a sudden influx of people at our southern borders obviously connected to the change in Presidents. Second, as Sullivan says, “Call this what it is: not a surge in asylum cases, but a big jump in economic migration.” It’s much easier, of course, to get legal entry as a refugee than as someone seeking a better life in the U.S. Not that the latter motive isn’t a good one—America’s been immensely enriched by those who came here seeking political and economic freedom—but unless we want open borders, we’ll have to make some rules.  Children are sequestered in “pods” at grim facilities in Texas, often held long beyond the 72-hour limit. A little girl drowned yesterday trying to get across the Rio Grande. And yet, from Biden, crickets, or, in his press conference this week, dissimulation:


The rhetoric from the Biden peeps contains very little emphasis on the core moral duty of government to have secure borders. Biden seems to want them all to come, and to make it easier rather than harder to immigrate — even as the foreign born population in the US is near a historic peak, even as domestic wages have been stagnant, and even as the economy has much less use for unskilled labor than at any previous point in history. [JAC: I think there are counterarguments against the “too much unskilled labor” argument, but I can’t recall them.]

The president also told some whoppers in his presser to deflect from these realities. He said that his administration is sending everyone back who isn’t a minor. But last week, only 13 percent of illegal immigrant families were sent back, so 87 percent were let in. A significant number were also admitted without even a gesture at processing them legally.

The president said that the numbers of unaccompanied children arriving were not much different than the numbers a year ago under Trump. Also false: “The number of unaccompanied children encountered on the border rose by 61% between January and February 2021, not the 28% Biden claimed — double the increase between January and February 2019.”

He said that the Trump administration sent kids back into the desert, and allowed them to starve to death. Another falsehood: “The Trump administration either flew back migrants to their home countries directly or handed them over to Mexican authorities to do the same.” In response to a question from ABC News, Biden even inadvertently defended this Trump policy — which he had just also denounced.

In all this, it’s worth keeping in mind that even those legally allowed in with a court date almost never return to their native land, even if they show up in court, and lose their case. Around 2 – 3 percent of all the illegal immigrants in the US are deported each year. Once they’re here, the vast majority are here for good. And if the current administration is any guide, they will be granted a mass amnesty at some point in the future.

But when you read much of the mainstream press, the entire emphasis is on how racist immigration enforcement inherently is, how cruel it is to prevent anyone from immigrating, how the US is ultimately responsible for the shitty governance in much of central America, how we need to abolish or defund ICE, and how we should focus mainly on how to admit as many people as humanely and as quickly as possible. And as this message percolates, not only does it encourage ever more illegal immigration, and ever more human suffering, it freaks out voters of all races and parties who begin to sense (rightly in my view) a de facto open borders policy.

And yes, I’ve sensed that too.

We have two choices: open borders, which I think everyone knows wouldn’t be optimal, or some form of immigration control. What Biden and the Dems seem to be doing is enacting the former while pretending to be effecting the latter.  I’m no expert, but one way forward is to decide how many people the U.S. can absorb yearly, and then prioritize entry based on things like need (including fleeing from fear of murder or terror), skills (or should we even consider skills?), and presence of family in the U.S.

‘Yes, this involves ethical decisions, but Americans are asking the Dems to put something in place, and if we don’t want losses in the midterm elections, Uncle Joe had best do what he promised.


49 thoughts on “What immigration policy do Democrats want, if any?

  1. I think what you’re asking for is that we have a national immigration policy. This is something that Democrats have advocated for a very long time. It has died in the Congress repeatedly because Republicans refuse anything more nuanced than a tRumpian wall. Every attempt falls under the sword of “Amnesty”. It won’t change until the filibuster is abolished.

    Sullivan is offering a tired trope, IMO, blaming Democrats for the consequences of intransigence of Republicans.

    1. I agree with this but the Biden should at least describe what national immigration policy they seek. Instead, they seem to be simply responding to the “crisis at the border”. It plays directly into the hands of those who want to see him fail.

      He needs to do a State of the Union address in which he lays out his plans in immigration and a lot of other areas. People will forgive him these largely inherited crises if they see them as temporary problems that will be dealt with as part of some master plan. They need to see that he has a vision for the country, not just a guy in charge who is simply nicer than the last guy.

  2. When I read Sullivan’s piece, I wondered whether everything he said about the Biden policy was true. Regardless, I totally agree that Biden’s policy is vague at best. If he’s not careful, it may take down his presidency.

    Although Biden needs to be really clear on his border policy, his administration is still a victim of Trump’s on this issue. 1. Trump defined border security as Job #1. I don’t agree that it is as important as Trump makes out but clearly people care about it. 2. Trump succeeded in scaring some would-be immigrants away, creating pent-up demand.

    More important to the future of the country is legal immigration policy as it applies to people who want to attend college in the US (and the attractiveness of those colleges, which is a different issue) or work in high paying jobs. The fear of foreigners coming to take our jobs seems misplaced to me and I suspect it is not accurate from an economic perspective. The US will win the battle against China by attracting the best people from around the world and providing an environment for them to thrive. The jobs for regular folk will come from all the new companies created and their resultant economic growth. Unfortunately, this is a tough message to get out to voters who are worried about losing their jobs. They can’t relate to it.

  3. The children at the border pose absolutely no danger to the nation. They do, however, pose a big danger to the Dem’s hopes for 2022. Biden really needs to find a way to manage the issue beyond blaming tRump.

  4. The US clearly needs comprehensive immigration reform — the type of bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform that passed the US senate in 2013, but couldn’t even get to a vote in the House because of the wingnut caucus there (the same wingnut caucus that drove Republicans John Boehner and Paul Ryan into retirement from the House Speakership).

    But just as much as comprehensive immigration reform, the US needs to help resolve the root problems in the Central American “northern triangle” countries — Honduras, El Salvador, and Honduras — root problems that US Central American policy has been fostering for decades and that is driving refugees from those countries to our borders.

    1. Senate bill S-744, sponsored by a bipartisan “gang of eight” and favored by President Obama, passed by a big majority, 68-32. As Ken notes, the House, in thrall to the Tea Partiers, refused
      to act on it. But now, the Democrats have a majority in the House; and although their Senate majority
      is by a hair, six of the original gang of eight (including two Repubs) are still in office. Obviously, the time is right for action on a new version of the 2013 immigration reform bill. I don’t understand why
      we haven’t heard about Democratic (or maybe bipartisan?) moves to do so. Is that in the works?

    2. What about the cultural problem of unplanned pregnancy (teen pregnancy alone is about 30% in the “northern triangle”)? That’s my candidate number one for root problem, rather than American policy. Similar to the problem of underachievement of Black Americans, more cultural than the result of structural racism.

  5. Personally, I wouldn’t rely on right-wing columnists to explain Biden’s nascent immigration policies. Also, consider the possibility there *is* no immigration crisis:
    “There is a problem at the border, but it is not remotely a “crisis.” It’s an administrative challenge that could be solved easily with more resources and clear policy — not even ranking with, say, the importance of securing loose nuclear material, much less the ongoing global pandemic, or the truly civilization-threatening crisis of climate change. The mainstream media is in effect collaborating with Republicans to stoke unreasoning xenophobic panic.”

    1. Well, I’d call Sullivan mostly a centrist, since he voted for Biden and despises Trump. Note, too, that the mainstream media (not Fox News) is calling this a “crisis”. But leave that aside, would you trust a LEFT-WING columnist to explain Biden’s policies? I’m not sure I would. Also, you can look up Sullivan’s assertions yourself, since he provides many links. If you want to contest his facts rather than distrusting him because he’s right-wing or uses the word “crisis”, by all means show us where he gets his data wrong.

  6. I canot read Sullivan’s article because I am not paying for it. I’ll stick with the Washington Post, thank you. There are plenty of places to get all that “sky is falling” stuff on immigration. I think they will figure it out but as always, since we have no congress to pass anything on this and haven’t had for years, you will get what you get. Maybe Sullivan can take comfort in the fact that we have had an extra 550,000 deaths due to this virus so there is actually some extra room for some more people. I am sure Sullivan was all over Trump when he was separating and caging all the people at the border as well. The only real solution to most of this movement out of central America is to fix the problem and causes there in those countries. Until this is done the problem will continue. By the way – Sullivan, where is that name from?

    1. > The only real solution to most of this movement out of central America is to fix the problem and causes there in those countries. Until this is done the problem will continue.

      To level the disparities between countries, the easiest solution is to allow open borders. Otherwise, the desire of people to migrate to greener pastures, especially if they have little to lose, is not going to change. Latin America has been behind the US in human development standards for about as long as the US existed and large parts of the world have no prospects of approaching the American standard of living. Your suggestion of fixing root causes for migration seems like waiting for a miracle.

      1. Maybe if we looked closer we could actually see something other than speculating. It use to be that much of the immigration came from Mexico. However, that changed as jobs and living standards improved. I think the biggest problem right now is Guatemala. They had Hurricanes down there and they have big problems with gangs. The whole point is, you send people down there to work with the people, determine what all the causes are and then try to eliminate them. Miracles are for religious people – not me.

        1. This article blames tougher US border enforcement, fewer young Mexicans and the declining job prospects in the US while noting that life in Mexico is not much better than before: https://archive.md/MEUbb

          Better living standards initially increase immigration, since traveling is unaffordable for poor people.

      2. “To level the disparities between countries, the easiest solution is to allow open borders.”

        How do you think that will work in practice?

        Let’s take Europe as example: We open the borders from Turkey to Greece, from North-Africa to Italy and Spain. Wide open! The camps (e.g in Greece) there will immediately be emptied, and very soon millions of people from Africa and the Middle East will cross over to Europe. I am curious: how do you think that will go? How many do you think Europe can integrate into society? What about welfare to all these? Housing? Jobs? Health care?

        1. Savage’s logic is sound in one respect. Opening the borders would fix the “desire of people to migrate to greener pastures”, in the sense that eventually living standards and wages in developed countries would drop to the levels of poorer countries, which would slow or stop immigration.
          Not an optimal solution.

  7. Dems think the latino vote is theirs to lose, because marginalized people unite in face of oppression. They also think that a very liberal immigration policy is the top priority of latino voters. They are wrong on all counts, and they refuse to learn.

    1. Biden won the Latino vote over Trump in the 2020 presidential election by a decisive 2-to-1 margin (approximately the same margin by which Hillary won it in 2016).

      That margin would have been even higher except for the Cuban-American vote concentrated in South Florida. (The word “socialism” has been anathema to Cuban Americans since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power on the island, and the GOP spent vast amounts of money for ads on South-Florida Spanish-language media to repeat that word over and over again ad nauseum).

      Latino voters don’t favor “a very liberal immigration policy,” but they were at least as appalled as their fellow Americans by the intentional cruelty of the forced parent-child separation policy that AG Jeff Sessions and Pres. Donald Trump adopted solely and expressly for the purpose of deterring Mexican and Central American refugees from coming to the southern US border.

        1. That Times piece is essentially a series of anecdotal interviews with older male Latino voters about why some of them voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election, along with the claim that Trump increased his share among Latino male voters in 2020 by 4% over his 2016 share (an increase more than offset by Trump’s loss of support among Latina voters during the same period).

          I’m uncertain (and the NYT piece does not endeavor to demonstrate) how statistically significant this 4% figure may be, but even assuming it is — and it would still constitute a piss-poor showing for one of the US’s two major political parties among this nation’s most demographically significant ethnic minority — at most it shows that there is a segment of older male Latino voters who can be every bit as dumb and self-centered as their older, male Anglo counterparts.

          That’s our great American melting pot at work, after a fashion, I suppose. 🙂

      1. ‘Latino voters don’t favor “a very liberal immigration policy,” but they were at least as appalled as their fellow Americans by the intentional cruelty of the forced parent-child separation policy that AG Jeff Sessions and Pres. Donald Trump adopted solely and expressly for the purpose of deterring Mexican and Central American refugees from coming to the southern US border.’

        Ought one be similarly and no less appalled at the apparent parent-child separation policy (whose ?) seemingly in effect with great numbers of minors traveling alone to the U.S. border? It would be unconscionable for the U.S. to turn unaccompanied minors away. Does it then follow that it would be unconscionable for the U.S. to prevent minors being reunited with their parents in the U.S.?

        1. No, I find it more appalling when an administration adopts a policy of intentional cruelty as a means of conducting immigration policy — and then fucks it up so bad that many of the parents and children whom it willfully separated at the border almost certainly will never be reunited.

          That doesn’t mean that there’s not still tragedy in the current situation. But that tragedy is a byproduct; under the Trump administration, that tragedy was a goal unto itself. Hell, Trump’s then-attorney general Jeff Sessions even treated it as grist for wisecracks when justifying the administration’s family-separation policy to his fellow evangelicals.

  8. Remember that in politics perception is reality. Whether or not there is any factual basis to the claim that Biden and the Dems are soft on immigration and favor open borders, if a large number of the public perceive them that way, they will lose Congress in 2022. If they want to keep Congress in the midterm, the Dems have to be on high alert and get out in front of every issue that comes up. They need to constantly consult oppo (opposition) researchers on these issues as well as on each of their personalities who will be running for election in 2022. By oppo research, I mean not only research against their opponents but also research against themselves, for they need to know what their opponents are going to hit them with. I applaud Biden for not continuing Obama’s practice of starting negotiations from a position of compromise, but he and his cohort need to be aggressively proactive and already in campaign mode for 2022.

  9. Obama had this “Family Case Management Program” which was launched as a pilot in early 2016, aimed to keep asylum seeking kin together, out of detention, and complying with immigration laws. It was praised by immigration advocates for both its high rate of compliance and its ability to help migrants thrive in a new country . It was -surprise,surprise- scrapped by Trump.
    I do not think there is a magic bullet to solve this ‘illegal immigration’ problem at the Southern border (I’d not call it a ‘crisis’, since going on for at least two decades). However, I think these kinds of programs are an essential part of solving the problem. Of course, as pointed out several times above, there is no doubt that improving living conditions in the ‘triangle’ (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) is essential, but this is not easily achieved either.
    Added is -of course- the political necessity to ‘score points’ above looking for real solutions, which makes it an unnecessary quagmire .

  10. It’s interesting to compare the US immigration policy to the policy in Europe. The vast majority of European, including people in the center and moderate left, think that border control is vital to the economic and social stability of the European countries.
    While most people here ( and I presume in the US) think we should help and accept asylum seekers from war-ridden countries like Syria, most people see it as absolutely necessary to restrict immigration of migrants from Africa and the Middle East. For example, the majority of asylum seekers currently now sitting in camps in Greece are young men from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Those waiting in North Africa are mostly young men from African countries.
    Now, although I definitely have sympathy for people seeking a better life in a European country with a welfare state, it’s simply not possible to accept all these into Europe. They are seeking a better life. Sure, I can understand that. However, it’s not possible to be lenient here
    I am Norwegian and the vast majority of politician here, whether they are right wing, center, or moderate left, are in favor of a strict immigration policy. Our welfare system would kneel if we don’t have a very strict requirement to enter the country. He costs to the Norwegian society is already unsustainable
    In the US, certainly the Democrat also understand that and if they don’t stop the flood of people coming in caravans from Central America, they will lose the popular vote in the next elections (the first one already in two years). Biden do seem understand this, but the radical left in the US seems to see any policy which seek to have a strict border control as racist
    And by the way, I am certainly not a Trump supporter, but rather centric or moderate left wing

    1. I do not foresee our immigration policy ever being like Europe or Japan or most other places. Our history is all about immigration as we all came from somewhere. The diversity here is the greatest in the world and it is what made the place go. The question might be, where would we be without immigration? It does not mean we should let in unlimited numbers but this country has always taken in people from most places. Doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes but none have been worse than the mistake we made a little over four years ago. We cannot afford one more like that.

      1. There’s a big difference between migrants being required by economic necessity to make a positive contribution to society and migrants being allowed to go on welfare and be a drain on society. The immigration that ‘made America great’ was of the former kind, and the immigration that’s causing so many problems in Europe (and increasing the USA as more and more taxpayer subsidies are made available to illegal immigrants) is of the latter kind.

        1. There’s a big difference between migrants being required by economic necessity to make a positive contribution to society and migrants being allowed to go on welfare and be a drain on society. The immigration that ‘made America great’ was of the former kind …

          That’s certainly NOT the way Nativists were portraying those earlier waves of immigration “that ‘made America great'” at the time — not during the great wave of Irish immigration during the mid-19th century, not during the wave of immigration from southern and central Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not preceding passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and not preceding passage of National Origin Act of 1924.

          This twitter thread by Princeton historian Kevin Kruse should give you enough of a taste of how Nativist Americans actually viewed all those earlier immigrants who made America great by “mak[ing] a positive contribution to society” to dispel such pollyannaish views of these eras of US history.

            1. My point is that this business about the old immigrants being the good ones who contributed to the public weal while the new ones are freeloaders detracting from it has been a recurring trope across North American history since the first Pilgrim to hit Plymouth Rock turned to the rest and told them to get back aboard the Mayflower and return whence they came.

  11. As Nicolaas Stempels pointed out, it’s hard to call something a “crisis” that’s been going on for decades. Adults immigrating to the US always increase from January through spring, as Tom Wong explains in the Washington Post. In 2020, the pandemic depressed the immigration rates, and many of those would-be immigrants simply deferred until the U.S. economy improved again, i.e. now.

    Unaccompanied minors are a different story – there the surge is real. But ending the ludicrously inhumane policies of the Trump administration on the subject will do that. I think we just have to man up and deal.

    Democrats are all over the map on immigration policies, but if you average them out you certainly don’t get open borders. Republicans were traditionally all over the map too, prior to the Tea Party and tRump. And of course for Congresscritters generally, there is plenty of speaking with forked tongues, telling one thing to favored business interests, another to constituents, still another to different constituents.

  12. One thing you never hear the Democrats mention is that the US now has the *third largest population in the world*. No, we’re nowhere near China or India (which, BTW, are using really draconian methods to try and reduce their populations), but we’re definitely third, and those numbers are putting a serious strain on our natural and social resources. We definitely *don’t* need to add to our population! If anything, we should try to cut it down. So here’s my solution to the immigration problem:

    1) The US must declare a *ten year moratorium* on *all* immigration into the US.

    2) People who come to our borders demanding “asylum” should be granted it — but not here. Give each of them a one-way plane-trip to Argentina, which is willing to take them in, because it wants settlers to develop its southwest coast.

    3) Revive exile/deportation as a criminal punishment. Whenever someone is caught committing a serious crime, arrest them, try them, convict them, and sentence them to deportation — to Argentina if Latin, to Liberia if Black, to Taiwan if Chinese, to the Philippines if other Asian, or to Mauritania if Muslim — and take care to not let them come back.

    This system will proved A Better Life for people who Feel Threatened in their own countries, provide needed laborers for those recipient countries, and reduce our population. It’s a win-win solution.

    –Leslie < Fish

  13. Trying to achieve a firm but fair immigration policy that respects the rights of genuine asylum seekers is a tough problem and I’m struggling to think of any country that has managed to solve it.

    In the UK, the home secretary, Priti Patel, has just announced new policies that she claims will treat those who arrive in the UK illegally more harshly than those who get here legitimately. The problem is, legal routes to claiming asylum are almost non-existent. Ironically, the government’s Brexit deal with the EU has seen us abandon the Dublin Regulation, under which the UK could return refugees to the last EU country they travelled through before arriving on British soil. So if they make it here things get complicated, and The Guardian recently reported that Home Office deportation flights were costing £13,354 per refugee!

    Building a wall down the middle of the English Channel is only slightly less practical than the loony proposals the government has been thinking about, including the construction of a giant wave machine to wash refugees’ small boats back to the French coast or using water cannon to deter them. Other plans to send refugees to Gibraltar and the Isle of Man for processing came as a complete surprise to those islands as the UK government, in its wisdom, hadn’t bothered to consult them. The Falkland Islands are apparently also envisaged as somewhere we could outsource our refugee problem to, presumably along the lines of Australia/Nauru. And we all know how well that’s going.

    In the meantime, refugees have been housed in squalid conditions in repurposed army barracks – the inspection reports were absolutely shocking, with crowded mass dormitories being used in the middle of the pandemic with predictable consequences.

    In the long term, the only solution is to stop people fleeing from their home countries in the first place. But for those arriving now, there remains a difficult time ahead.

  14. My suspicion is that the current administration does not have a cohesive strategy. They have a series of positions on various aspects of immigration, but those positions are not necessarily part of a larger plan.
    Each individual position might be well intentioned, but it seems like the combined net result will be more suffering here and abroad.

    1. Does he put in a good word for Cancun?

      Why do people take an instant dislike to ol’ Ted? It simply saves time.

  15. if we didn’t have a war on drugs the countries these immigrants are coming from wouldn’t be so violent and broken. They might not be rich countries, but you can draw a straight line from our insane drug policies to their broken, violent gangster societies. And parts of ours.


    1. Yes David, that is a pertinent point.
      The war on drugs makes the Cartels rich (able to buy the authorities) and powerful, and willing to walk over countless dead bodies. Remember that it was the Prohibition that made the mafia powerful.
      Would be interesting to find out how much suffering and death is caused by the ‘war on drugs’, compared to the drugs themselves. Not an ‘easy’ question to answer

    2. There must be a way to help countries without taking in all of their population. The existing US population is not obliged to atone this way for the sins of US statesmen.

    3. The US has also interfered in the internal politics of many nations in the region, usually to keep them under the thumb of autocrats for the benefit of US business interests, going back at least to the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état, in which Ike’s boys the Dulles brothers connived with the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz.

      This has certainly had a pernicious and destabilizing effect on the lives of the peasantry there to this day.

  16. Don’t buy into the “woke” argument that strict immigration policies are about racism. The USA, Canada, and Australia already had the most open immigration policies IN THE WORLD before AND AFTER the Trump administration. While the far left wants entitlements for everyone, they have not looked to European immigration policies for this “socialist” (really capitalism with high taxes) system that they so often reference. It is much harder to emigrate to E.U. You must have either a job, or have major assets and regular income that you will be bringing in with you. In Ireland, for instance, to retire there, you must prove that you have 50k in annual income PER PERSON and you must buy your own health insurance. They understand that money (even virtual money) is finite and that you cannot allow people in who will be a drag on the system without contributing. Now for years, because USA was a place of lower entitlements, it was easier to let people in with the understanding that they would be self sufficient. HOWEVER as much as I profess to be a libertarian, and with the admission that much of our population growth comes from immigration, I don’t believe it’s a good idea to let in too many poor people with very little education, and who are not bringing in assets. This has nothing to do with any sort of “fear of brown people.” We need to make sure that the poorest American citizens, including blacks and hispanics, are working before we should commit to letting in more people who will compete for the lower end jobs (which are quickly disappearing.) These lower end jobs which elites in the woke left like to poo-poo are the stepping stones that allow people to get through the 5 year plan in college while they are supporting their family, and allow people to have verifiable income so that they can buy a home. With the shut down wreaking economic havoc NOW IS NOT THE TIME to be spending millions of dollars on hotels, detainment facilities, legal costs etc. Besides this, loose policies actually enable the cartel to traffic more and more people. The situation is dire right now and both sides actually agree on this.

    1. I feel that way too though it has been noted that there are many low-paying jobs that American citizens won’t do that are currently done by so-called illegal immigrants. Perhaps there’s some way to make them legal by giving them a path to citizenship, not only for the supposed 11M already here but for future such “immigrants”. We shouldn’t let in more than we can handle, of course. My guess is that we have a lot of xenophobes who wouldn’t like such a system.

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