Ben Roback: Does controlling migration really matter to Biden and Harris? If not, what follows?

5 May

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

There are intractable problems that seem to always dominate governments – no matter the party, Prime Minister or President in office. The age-old problem of what to do about older people and social care has evaded a hat-trick of British Prime Ministers since Andrew Dilnot’s commission published its recommendations in 2011. The United States has its fair share of such difficulties – from guns and gangs all the way to climate change and carbon emissions.

Joe Biden is seeking to take on the vast challenge of immigration and the crisis on the southern border. Sensing how problematic the predicament is, Biden has delegated the task to his Vice President, Kamala Harris.

It is set to be her most important litmus test ahead of an almost inevitable future run at the White House. Succeed, and she can claim to have fixed one of America’s most dogged political, social and humanitarian problems. Fail, and her record will be tarnished forever. The scale of the challenge means that the President has handed Harris a poisoned chalice. What better way to dampen expectations of Biden retiring in 2024 in order to gift her the presidential nomination?

If the barometer for success is reducing illegal crossings, Harris might find that the only solution is being veritably Trumpian – increased deportations, harsher rhetoric, expanded powers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE).

In political terms, that is unconscionable for a Democratic Vice President, in the shadow of Donald Trump. Harris must deter illegal border crossings without being too harsh on the genuine immigrants and helpless children lumped together with economic opportunists.

The White House and Harris must aim high in order to succeed where their predecessors have failed

Most presidents try deportation. According to analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, more than 12 million people were deported during the Clinton administration. More than 10 million were then removed or returned during the Bush administration.

Barack Obama struck a softer tone on immigration, but nevertheless removed or returned more than five million people, including an estimated 1.7 million people who had no criminal record. With hindsight, Biden the presidential candidate called it a “big mistake” to have deported hundreds of thousands of them.

Trump tried a wall – campaigning on the premise that a physical barrier would stem the tide through Central America. The wall’s construction was mired in funding and contractual complications, but the 45th president left office having reduced the number of refugees admitted to the United States to its lowest level in 40 years.

How much responsibility the “big, beautiful wall” bears for that is mixed. The wall unquestionably embodied the United States’ new attitude to immigration, acting as a physical deterrent to attempted entry, alongside a raft of executive orders such as the Muslim ban and a reduction in the quote of people admitted to the US as refugees each year.

Progressives have cheered Biden…so far

The numbers of people arriving on the US border have grown since Biden took office, seemingly in part owing to a softer immigration policy compared to the Trump era. The President and his team are long enough in the tooth to recognise a political crisis unfolding before their eyes, and so doing nothing on immigration is not an option. So the White House has made a series of interventions so far.

Since January, the Biden administration has reversed a policy of turning away unaccompanied children, instead choosing to process them and place them with sponsoring families in the US. More recently, the White House announced it will raise the cap on refugees to 62,500 this fiscal year.

It followed outrage amongst immigration reform advocates and progressive Democrats after the President’s initial decision to keep the Trump-era ceiling of 15,000 admissions in place. So the move allows the White House to create clear daylight between Biden and Trump. But as the President himself says, “the sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year”.

Most importantly, in March, he handed his vice president a political grenade by putting her in charge of the southern border. It’s a bit like asking Priti Patel to launch her Conservative Party leadership bid after being tasked with reducing illegal boat crossings at Dover and Newhaven.

Is immigration really a priority for the White House?

The problem for Biden, and perhaps more significantly for Harris, is that while immigration is approaching crisis levels, it does not seem to be a major concern in Washington.

The Covid relief plan was an urgent necessity – an essential, albeit expensive, piece of big government legislation designed to stop the country falling to its knees

Next, the American Jobs Plan and the American Family Plan are hugely ambitious legislative packages that are a throwback to the days of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. In legislative terms on Capitol Hill and as the vaccine rollout continues, the full power of the US government is being felt.

John Kerry wants to lead the world on climate change. Anthony Blinken wants to reinvigorate old allegiances in order to combat the rise of China. Janet Yellen wants a global approach to corporate taxation to lower the playing field. Pete Buttigieg wants to make it easier to travel from Washington DC to Washington State.

The White House is firing on all cylinders. Is there any political or legislative oxygen left for anything else? That long and by no mean exhaustive list of political and policy priorities leaves little room for the kind of investment, attention and political capital required to deliver seismic immigration reform.

Washington will descend closer into a Congressional mid-term election overdrive soon. Democrats fear losing their razor-thin Senate majority in 2022, meaning serious policy upheaval needs to be completed sooner rather than later. With Covid relief done and infrastructure next, immigration does not appear to be anywhere near the top of the list for this administration. Time is running out.