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The State of Immigration 2024

Mar 8, 2024

Photograph of newspaper with Joe Biden

Joe Biden assumed the presidency with a clear mandate to address the United States’ deeply flawed immigration system, quickly overturning some of his predecessor’s most controversial policies, such as the ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. He introduced a bold agenda that promised an 8-year pathway to citizenship for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants, marking the most comprehensive and ambitious immigration reform proposal by any president in recent memory. This initiative was a beacon of hope, signaling a move towards more inclusive and humane immigration policies. However, the journey from ambitious campaign promises to pragmatic governance has been complex, navigating through policy reform, economic imperatives, and political turbulence.

The president’s recent use of the term “illegal” to describe undocumented individuals during his State of the Union address starkly contrasts with these initial efforts, particularly given his administration’s 2021 push towards more respectful language by advising U.S. immigration enforcement agencies to avoid terms like “illegal alien.” This moment of discord has not only drawn criticism but also highlighted how polarizing the issue of immigration has become over Biden’s term, reflecting a significant shift—whether by choice or necessity—from his administration’s inclusive and ambitious start. The evolution of Biden’s immigration policy mirrors the nation’s grappling with one of its most polarizing issues amidst a landscape marked by economic recovery and labor market dynamics, underscoring the challenges of balancing ambitious reform with the realities of governing in a divided country.

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Early Promises and Progressive Stances

Biden’s entry into the presidency in 2021 heralded a stark departure from the restrictive policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump. Pledging a humane approach to immigration, Biden aimed to reverse the zero-tolerance policies that had led to family separations and widespread outcry. He advocated for a 100-day moratorium on deportations, protection for sanctuary cities, and a welcoming stance toward asylum seekers, suggesting that America could “absorb” millions in need, in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s hardline approach.

Challenges at the Border and Policy Shifts

However, the reality of governing a country facing an unprecedented surge at the southern border required a reevaluation of these stances. The administration’s early promises ran headlong into logistical and political challenges, from overcrowded detention facilities to a surge in migrant crossings that tested the nation’s capacity for asylum processing. Amidst growing public concern and political pressure, the administration shifted its rhetoric, seeking a more centrist path that balanced humanitarian concerns with border security and enforcement.

2021-2024: Biden’s Immigration Policies Over Time

2021: Foundations and Reversals

  • Key Actions: Reversal of Trump-era policies, including ending the Muslim and African travel bans, stopping the construction of the border wall, and reinstating DACA.
  • Humanitarian Efforts: Increased refugee admissions cap, ended the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and halted most deportations for 100 days.
  • Challenges: Legal challenges to new directives, logistical issues in reversing policies, and criticism from both immigration advocates and opponents.

2022: Policy Expansion and Legislative Efforts

  • Border Management: Efforts to manage the border more effectively while seeking to provide legal pathways for migrants.
  • Legislative Proposals: Introduction of legislation aimed at creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, though facing significant congressional hurdles.
  • Humanitarian Focus: Continued emphasis on humanitarian protections, including TPS extensions and addressing root causes of migration in home countries.

2023: Enforcement, Protection, and Supreme Court Rulings

  • Border Enforcement and Work Authorizations: Increased border enforcement, accelerated work authorizations, and extended TPS for Venezuelans.
  • Legal Actions: Significant efforts against smugglers and a Supreme Court ruling supporting deportation policies for public safety threats.
  • Refugee Admissions: Commitment to admitting refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean reflects a regional humanitarian focus.

2024 (Planned and Under Discussion)

  • Policy Adjustments: Discussions on barring asylum between ports of entry and raising the “credible fear standard” for asylum seekers.
  • Strategic Shifts: Potential new executive actions and regulations to manage migration more effectively and address asylum system challenges.
  • Political Context: Efforts to fill the legislative void after the failure of a bipartisan border deal, indicating a continued search for viable policy solutions amidst political challenges.

Trump vs. Biden on Immigration

As the 2024 election looms, the political landscape sees a familiar rivalry rekindled between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, with immigration emerging as a central battleground. Trump has doubled down on his hardline immigration stance, proposing measures that far exceed the scope of his previous policies. These developments underscore a stark contrast in the vision for America’s future, with immigration at the heart of the discourse.

The contrasting immigration policies of Trump and Biden not only reflect differing political ideologies but also carry profound implications for the U.S. economy and labor market. Immigrants play a crucial role in filling labor shortages, driving economic growth, and contributing to the diversity and dynamism of American society. 

Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, have been key to filling labor shortages across various sectors, from healthcare to agriculture, contributing to the U.S.’s robust economic recovery from the pandemic. Nearly 19% of the labor force is now composed of foreign-born workers, reflecting the vital role of immigrants in sustaining American businesses and driving economic growth.

The influx of immigrants has also been linked to moderating inflationary pressures, with the participation of foreign-born workers helping to stabilize wages and prices in a historically tight labor market. This economic impact, underscored by analyses indicating that immigration could contribute approximately $7 trillion to the U.S. economy over the next decade, challenges narratives that pit immigrants against native-born workers in zero-sum competition for jobs and wages.

2024 and Beyond

In the wake of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address and the ensuing discourse, the administration’s path forward on immigration emerges as a critical juncture in defining his presidency’s legacy and future trajectory. Amidst the backdrop of a slip in rhetoric and the broader challenges of policy reform, economic imperatives, and political turbulence, the administration’s commitment to a humane and inclusive approach to immigration remains under scrutiny.

As the nation stands at this crossroads, the imperative to balance the foundational humanity that characterized the early days of Biden’s immigration policy with the strategic unlocking of the skilled labor force becomes increasingly apparent. This balance is not merely a matter of policy preference but a crucial lever for sustaining and amplifying the economic gains achieved under Biden’s leadership. The administration’s ability to navigate this balance will be pivotal in securing a robust economic future for the United States.

The critical role of immigrants in addressing labor shortages across key sectors—from healthcare to agriculture—cannot be overstated. As essential contributors to the nation’s recovery and growth, immigrants have proven indispensable in filling gaps in the labor market, driving innovation, and fostering a dynamic economic landscape. The participation of foreign-born workers has also played a role in moderating inflationary pressures, further underscoring the economic rationale for a more open and efficient immigration system.

Looking ahead, the administration’s efforts to refine its immigration strategy must focus on creating pathways that facilitate the entry and integration of skilled and essential workers and reflect the nation’s values of dignity, respect, and opportunity for all. This approach entails a commitment to streamlining immigration processes, removing unnecessary barriers, and ensuring that America remains a destination for talent, hard work, and dreams.

As President Biden prepares for the challenges and opportunities, the administration’s success in marrying the principles of humanity with pragmatic economic strategies will be critical. By doing so, Biden can continue to build on the economic gains of his tenure, enhance America’s competitive edge on the global stage, and reaffirm the country’s identity as a beacon of hope and opportunity. In navigating the complexities of immigration reform, the administration can craft a legacy reflecting the best of American values while securing the nation’s economic prosperity for future generations.