Home / America / Joe Biden’s Cruel Border Shutdown Follows in Clinton and Obama’s Footsteps Too

Joe Biden’s Cruel Border Shutdown Follows in Clinton and Obama’s Footsteps Too

The draconian restrictions on asylum-seekers owe a lot to Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown, but the path was paved by Democrats.

“PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN is pulling from former President Donald Trump’s immigration playbook,” CNN reported on Tuesday. The occasion was Biden’s announcement this week of a draconian executive order to temporarily shut down asylum requests at the U.S.–Mexico border and introduce other drastic restrictions on the basic right to asylum.

CNN was not alone. Numerous commentators, particularly critics of Biden’s plan, noted that the decision to halt the asylum process reflects an extremity of border authoritarianism worthy of Trump. “This action takes the same approach as the Trump administration’s asylum ban,” the American Civil Liberties Union said on X, vowing to go to court.

There’s much truth to it. Biden’s border policies have been no less than Trumpian. This is especially true of his use of executive authority to harden border rule, as Trump had done with his 2017 Muslim ban and his own extremist asylum restrictions in 2018.

Yet Biden’s new asylum restrictions, the details of which were announced on Tuesday, are neither an aberration from his administration’s border policies, nor are they a shift away from decades-long Democratic Party standards, since at least the Clinton era.

This is not to underplay the extremity of Biden’s new plan. Under Biden’s executive order, the administration will halt asylum requests at the border once the average number of daily encounters has reached 2,500 between legal ports of entry, which has been consistently the case since Biden took office in 2021. Requests will be reopened two weeks after the daily average falls under 1,500 for seven consecutive days. The restrictions went into effect last night.

The order has some exemptions in place for unaccompanied minors, for those with acute medical emergencies, for “severe” trafficking victims, and for people who have already made appointments on the Customs and Border Protection app, a burdensome process that can take many months.

Those who can immediately show “reasonable probability” of imminent and extreme threat to life or safety, such as grave persecution, rape, kidnapping, torture, or murder are exempt — although the Department of Homeland Security noted that the plan demands a “new, substantially higher standard” that there is a “reasonable probability.” This standard is higher even than under Trump’s harsh 2018 asylum ban.

Migrants who are expelled under the order will receive a minimum five-year bar on reentry to the U.S. and potentially be criminally prosecuted.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., summed it up well: “This will be one of the most restrictive border policies in modern history.”

Bipartisan Border Fascism

While it is true that Biden is bending to Republican pressure over the so-called border crisis — quite literally relying on Trump-era legislation — border fascism has for decades been a bipartisan commitment.

The convergence between conservative and far-right border politics, with the far right consistently winning the day, can in part be blamed on spineless realpolitik: A February Gallup poll found that 28 percent of Americans believed immigration to be the most important problem facing the U.S.

Better for a presidential campaign, the logic goes, to lean into the pernicious, anti-migrant crisis narrative.

It matters little that public sentiment might be affected by years of right-wing fearmongering, to which the Democratic establishment has readily acquiesced, alongside punishing austerity budgets that leave citizens fearful of stretched resources. Democrats and Republicans are fighting to the bottom on immigration — a fight that vocal white nationalist Republicans will always win.

This is not, however, merely a case of self-identifying centrist Democrats following the evermore fascistic Republican line.

“I think it’s so important to understand how immigration enforcement has been a pillar of the Democratic party’s governance for three decades,” activist and scholar of border imperialism Harsha Walia told Intercepted podcast in February 2021, when it was already becoming clear that Biden’s tenure would hardly see the undoing of the border regime.

Walia noted that it was under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — not only Trump — that “an entire immigration enforcement apparatus” was established to increase criminalization, detention, deportation, and militarization. It was, Walia said, “the very bipartisan agenda of detaining and deporting and terrorizing migrant communities.”

These structures, she added, were built up and normalized in the Clinton years.

In 1994, at the very same time that Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Army Corps of Engineers began to fence the U.S.–Mexico border. The neoliberal trade deal further immiserated Mexico’s poorest, producing displacement and migration; the U.S militarized the border in preparation. Clinton’s 1996 immigration laws significantly expanded the United States’ ability to detain and deport migrants with even minor criminal convictions.

And Obama relied on the pernicious, racist, classist narrative of only targeting “dangerous” criminal migrants. Rightly dubbed the “deporter-in-chief,” Obama deported some 3 million people.

Differences of Rhetoric, Not Substance

This is a Democratic legacy: hardened borders, the criminalization of migration, the willingness to condemn thousands of people to death through deterrence. This is the necropolitical management of migrants fleeing political and economic turmoil often as the result of decades of ruinous U.S. interventions in Central America.

While Trump set the bar of anti-immigrant politics at a subterranean low and promises an agenda of unvarnished fascism should he be reelected, the brutal and increasingly eliminationist exclusion of migrants is a bipartisan project.

Biden’s executive order is itself no shift from his only policy record. A war on immigrants is the norm under this administration, from the expedited expulsion of thousands of Haitians in 2021; to his blanket policy in early 2023 to immediately eject asylum-seekers from Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua who cross the border from Mexico without having previously applied for asylum in a third country; to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s increased use of solitary confinement for thousands of detained migrants.

The idea of Democrats as the pro-immigrant party nonetheless persists as a convenient myth on both sides of the aisle. Democrats condemn the intolerable cruelty of Republican nativism, and Republicans, meanwhile, decry Democrats as open-border radicals, regardless of the anti-immigrant continuities between the two party’s policies. Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s family separation policy, predictably slammed Biden’s authoritarian executive order as somehow “pro-invasion, pro-illegal migration executive order.”

The difference is more one of rhetoric than substance. “I’ll never refer to immigrants as poisoning the blood of a country,” Biden said on Tuesday. But policies that swiftly reject, eject, cage, and punish desperate migrants attempting to find safety and stability in one of the world’s wealthiest nations send the same nationalist message.

Democrats couch their border logics in the neoliberal language of management and order, rather than explicitly racist “America First” slogans. The maintenance of the border — a racist tool that serves capital and divides labor — has the same disastrous, deadly effects no matter what rhetoric justifies it.

As the American Civil Liberties Union noted of Biden’s executive order, it “will severely restrict people’s legal right to seek asylum, putting tens of thousands of lives at risk.”

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