Trump/Biden Debate Immigration: US Foreign Policy as a Driver Is Ignored

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

— Emma Lazarus’s inscription on the Statue of Liberty

The contestants squared off in the first of the US presidential debates of 2024. Both wore identical white shirts and navy suits with American flag lapel pins. One wore a red tie; the other a blue one. There were other differences, but none quite so substantive.

The immigration issue dominated the debate. The challenger claimed that the country was being menaced by immigrants – marauding hordes of rapists, murders, and mentally ill. They were the ruination of the nation. Social Security and Medicare were jeopardized by the alien element. Immigrants endangered the jobs of blacks and Hispanics. There was nothing good and a lot bad about the threat of the foreign-born, who should be deported in large numbers according to Mr. Trump.

According to the US Census Bureau, the percent foreign-born in the US increased 15.6% from 2010 to 2022, comprising 13.9% of the total population. A significant one in seven people in the US were not born here.

Some of our past presidents celebrated that we are a “nation of immigrants”:

+ Ronald Reagan said, “If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

+ George H.W. Bush said, “Immigration is not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future.”

+ George W. Bush said, “People around the world…come to America. Their talent and hard work and love of freedom have helped make America the leader of the world.”

And incumbent President Biden said…well, nothing to counter Trump’s chauvinistic slander. Not a peep could be heard in defense of immigrants. There was no contesting of the calumny heaped upon immigrants nor was there any recognition of their humanity from Mr. Biden. Rather, his silence – his failure to confront Trump’s pandering to nimby nativism – was complicity by default.

Trump-Biden immigration policy and practice compared

On the issue of immigration, there was no substantive debate on June 27. Drilling deeper, the political practice of the former president and the current president bear more similarities than differences.

Earlier in June, Biden made what the press characterized as a “drastic crackdown” on immigration “closing” the southern border by issuing an executive order to partially ban asylum proceedings. Under Biden, NPR observed, the southern border has been further reinforced, with more military operations and “expedited removals,” than ever before. NPR concluded, “Biden’s asylum restrictions mirror those implemented by Trump.”

While president, Trump had used the excuse of the Covid pandemic to invoke the controversial Title 42 public health measure to allow the expulsion of some 400,000 from the border and deny asylum appeals. Despite his campaign promise for a more humane immigration policy, Biden continued Title 42 until May 2023, when the Covid emergency was officially ended. Two million people were ejected under Biden’s watch.

Thus Biden expelled five times as many migrants as Trump, although that partially reflects more migrants on the border. Overall, Biden has been slightly less draconian than Trump, allowing greater use of humanitarian parole and ending holding families in ICE detention. Biden also reinstated an older version of the citizenship exam after Trump had made the test more difficult.

In the debate, Biden defended his immigration policies, claiming that the Republicans had his hands tied. But as researcher Laura Carlson observed from Mexico, Biden has adopted the Republican framework of immigration as a threat to national security. Neither candidate offered anywhere near a humane solution for the “huddled masses” on the border. Neither did they address why so many risk so much and endure such hardship to mass on the border. (Spoiler alert: it’s not because they crave “our democracy.”)

Alternative views on immigration excluded

Presumptive Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein presented a different perspective on immigration. Barred from the CNN debate, she appeared in a Zoom meeting following the main event. Stein certainly qualified to be included in the nationally-televised debate, because she would be on the ballot in enough states to theoretically win the presidency. But her stances on global warming, peace in Ukraine, no war on China, and against genocide in Palestine would have been against the grain of the two major parties and the corporate media.

Stein was not only excluded from the debate, but the Democrats are trying to keep her from contending in the election. Per a recent Green Party post: “The dirty trick Dems slapped us with legal action to try to keep Jill off the ballot. They’re making good on their threats to sue us off the ballot everywhere and keep our time and resources tied up in frivolous litigation.”

Had Stein been in the debate, she would have implicated US foreign policy as a significant driver of migration to the US. Washington’s promotion and in some cases imposition of a neoliberal economic model, which fails to meet people’s material needs, pushes immigration. Export of the “war on drugs” and sanctioning some one third of humanity are related push factors fueling immigration.

Among the Latin American source countries, immigration has spiked from Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua precisely because these states, striving for socialism, have been targeted for regime change by Washington. US-imposed unilateral coercive measures punish citizens with the misfortune to have leaders not to Washington’s liking.

These measures, euphemistically called sanctions, are designed to make life miserable. According to Switzerland-based international human rights lawyer Alfred de Zayas, sanctions are used by the US “to blackmail, bully and intimidate states that do not readily accept US hegemony.” He adds, “the US has no legal or moral right to sanction or ‘punish’ other states.”

From Nicaragua, journalist John Perry observes, “blaming migration on ‘repressive dictatorships’ allows Washington to pretend that its policies are helping Nicaraguans, when in fact they are impoverishing them.”

Ending the illegal US sanctions would not stop all migration from the impacted countries, but it would be a step in reducing the pressure on the US border. Although Trump and Biden bickered over addressing the symptoms, they remained seemingly clueless about what causes immigration.

Future of US immigration policy

 For partisan US politics, the immigration issue is a political football. For a different perspective, a recent Chinese report on human rights in the US is instructive: “Political strife has become a defining feature of US immigration policy. Politicians have forsaken the rights and welfare of immigrants, engaging in divisive attacks on each other over immigration issues…The immigration issue has thus fallen into a vicious circle without a solution.”

Jill Stein’s presence at the debate would surely have elevated it. Toward the end of the two-man slime fest, Biden mumbled – but with great conviction – something about his “handicap.” One would have thought that the incumbent would not have broached the question of his competence. But it turned out to be a golf thing. Trump immediately claimed greater prowess on the links. On the positive side, the debate did not get into pickleball. Nor did they get into immigration causes or solutions, demonstrating the vacuousness of the debate and the impoverished choices offered by the two-party system come November.

Roger D. Harris is with the human rights group Task Force on the Americas , founded in 1985. Read other articles by Roger D..