Where do we go from here? The 2020 U.S. presidential election, immigration, and crisis

Four years ago, I sat down to collect my thoughts, days after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Like many, I was shocked at the election results and, given my interest in international migration, concerned about how Trump would approach immigration. I ended my essay on immigration and the 2016 presidential election by asking, “Where do we go from here?,” and lamenting the dark days ahead for those interested in humane immigration policies. Now that the 2020 U.S. presidential election is behind us (sort of), I find myself again asking, Where do we go from here?

After the turmoil of the 2020 election, it is difficult to recall, let alone thoughtfully reflect on, how each candidate approached immigration in their campaigns. The COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing protests against police brutality and racial injustice, and fears of post-election mayhem across the United States all but crowded out immigration as a 2020 campaign issue. The main issue for voters depended on where they sat on the political spectrum, and the most pressing topics of this election revolved around whether all votes would be counted and whether the losing side would respond with violence.

What, though, did each candidate actually say about immigration? Trump’s campaign website did not reference details about his platform on its landing page, but the immigration portion of his ‘Promises Kept’ presented a laundry list of accomplishments that curbed immigration and ‘protected our borders,’ reiterating the argument that immigrants were sources of crime and insecurity. The Biden campaign addressed immigration under ‘Joe’s vision,’ centering immigrant families (separated at the border by Trump or torn apart by ICE raids) and positioning the United States as a nation of immigrants. With both a reiteration of the Biden-Obama approach to immigration and a detailed plan for Biden’s first 100 days as president, his campaign focused on the consequences of immigration policies for immigrants, marking a sharp distinction from the Trump campaign’s focus on how immigration impacted (and hurt) ‘Americans.’

In reality, I suspect, few voters visited either candidate’s website to learn about their positions on immigration. After four years of Trump’s unrelenting effort to transform the U.S. approach to immigration, to gut the refugee resettlement program, and to reconfigure immigration’s place in U.S. national identity, it is hard to imagine voters who were unsure about how each candidate approached immigration. In 2020, immigration was simply not a campaign issue.

The absence of attention to immigration in the 2020 campaign is somewhat ironic, given how much media attention the topic demanded during Trump’s presidency. What has received less media attention, however, are the profound shifts in migration trends that migration scholars like Douglas Massey have noted. The early decades of the twenty-first century have seen fundamental changes in the nature of and rhetoric about immigration to the United States, especially from Latin America: a shift from young Mexican men seeking work to Central American families seeking refuge and from optimistic globalism to defensive populism as the dominant framework for approaching immigration as an issue. While U.S. public opinions toward immigrants have been largely unchanged in recent years, reconfigurations in who comprises that immigrant population and how that population is politically framed have been profound.

As I drafted this essay, the news that Biden had won the 2020 U.S. presidential race scrolled across my phone. Those invested in immigrant rights and humanitarian commitments will meet this news with sighs of relief and renewed hope for the future. Biden, though, has his work cut out for him if he plans to undo Trump’s dismantling of the U.S. immigration system, as he has promised. Not only will Biden need to rebuild the infrastructure supporting refugee resettlement and take swift action to address the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, but he will encounter a set of immigration policies out of step with current migration flows to the United States and a Congress unwilling to work across party lines. The last round of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States was in 1986. Much has changed about immigration, and about Congress’s interest in bipartisan legislation, since then. While Biden can reverse some of Trump’s damage with his own executive orders, managing immigration via executive order is not sustainable. If Biden really wants to address the issue of immigration, he will need to create bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform – a task that will require a commitment to building bridges and working across political divides that Washington, DC, has not seen in many years. While I want to be optimistic about what Biden can accomplish vis-à-vis immigration, Trump’s policies and rhetoric have caused long-term damage to not only U.S. immigration policies but also national dialogues around immigration, belonging, and who we are as a nation. A progressive path forward concerning immigration will be incredibly hard work, but at least it no longer seems impossible.