On Migrant Rights, Joe Biden Still Has a Long Way to Go

Adam Goodman

The Biden administration has made some encouraging noises on immigration policy. But activists are tired of talk — they want to see action.

An Influx Care Facility (ICF) for unaccompanied migrant children on Sunday, February 21, 2021, in Carrizo Springs, TX. (Sergio Flores / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

After news broke in the Washington Post about the Biden administration’s reopening of a Trump-era camp in Carrizo Springs, Texas, used to detain migrant children, criticism from immigration advocates was swift. Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio­–based immigration lawyer who represents unaccompanied minors, told the Post: “It’s unnecessary, it’s costly, and it goes absolutely against everything [President] Biden promised he was going to do.” The news also prompted criticism from elected representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who remarked, “This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party.” The White House, for its part, has categorically denied comparisons between the facility and the brutal migrant policies of the Trump era.

Adam Goodman is an assistant professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of the 2020 book The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants. Jacobin spoke to Goodman about the news surrounding the reopened Carrizo Springs facility, the recent history of America’s deportation and border policies, and the landscape for immigration reform in the Biden era.


To begin, it might be useful to clear the ground a bit. There’s obviously too much to cover here in much detail, but I think it might be worth setting the stage with, at very least, some of the recent history of US immigration policy. The issue received a lot of attention during the Trump era because of the administration’s particular penchant for the brutal treatment of migrants. But, as is now pretty widely understood, the Obama-Biden administration’s record when it came to the number of deportations actually exceeded Trump’s. Can you give us a sketch of the recent history of immigration policy in relation to the border, deportations, and detention policies?


The deportation machine has a long bipartisan history. Something I discovered while researching my book is that the United States has deported 57 million people since the 1880s. Mass expulsion has happened under both Democratic and Republican administrations. And we know very little about the majority of them because they’ve happened far from the public eye and with little to no due process.

In more recent decades, we’ve seen that Democratic administrations have rolled out some of the most punitive policies. The age of mass expulsion began in the late 1970s under Jimmy Carter. From 1978 to 2008, US officials deported an average of 900,000 people every year. Carter’s Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the precursor to the Department of Homeland Security) was Leonel Castillo, a Mexican American from Houston, Texas, who — similar to Biden’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — pushed for progressive changes and said the right things while also implementing a liberal law-and-order policy that kept the deportation and machine running smoothly.

Fast forward two decades, and Bill Clinton implemented some of the most punitive immigration and border enforcement policies in recent history. He dramatically increased the number of agents policing the US-Mexico border, increased the number of people eligible for deportation, and expanded the types of minor offenses that could result in one’s removal.

We need to recognize the ways that Democrats and Republicans have, in large part, been on the same page here. That certainly continued with Barack Obama, who oversaw programs like Secure Communities, which linked local police and law enforcement agencies to the federal immigration bureaucracy and led to a spike in expulsions. Democrats have often said one thing and then acted in a very different way. The Biden administration may break from that pattern, but that remains to be seen.


Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that the Biden administration opened its first facility for children — a facility that was briefly used under Donald Trump in 2019 and has been reopened to hold up to seven hundred children ages thirteen to seventeen.

The move was very promptly criticized by advocates like Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio-based immigration lawyer who represents unaccompanied minors. Some elected representatives like AOC have criticized it, too, and White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki was asked about it at a briefing.

What’s the context for this facility — both in terms of Biden’s immigration policy and its function within America’s immigration apparatus?


It’s important to recognize that regardless of who’s in power, there’s a certain amount of bureaucratic continuity and inertia at play within DHS. There’s also the problem of implementation of new policies by the rank and file, who have extraordinary discretionary power, which has proven inherently problematic.

Let’s also be clear that these are political decisions. We saw during the pandemic that the number of immigrant detainees dropped from over fifty thousand people to fewer than twenty thousand. And for good reason, because of the dangers that the virus poses to people held in detention. This dramatic reduction made clear that there’s no reason to lock up so many immigrants and asylum seekers.

So the Biden administration’s announcement this week that they’re reopening this youth facility to keep kids in cages, as critics have described it, puts them in a tough spot. It actually calls to mind the moment in one of the presidential debates when Trump really went in on Biden, asking “Who built the cages, Joe?” and Biden didn’t have a great answer. I’m not siding with Trump here or letting him off the hook for all of the horrible policies his administration implemented or for the all-out war that they waged against immigrants — and I think it’s important to recognize the ways Trump’s actions differed from those of other administrations.

But Trump also had a point. The Democrats need to acknowledge the past wrongs they have committed and the ways they’ve contributed to building up this punitive deportation machine. And they need to pivot and stake out new ground. Activists don’t want to hear the Biden administration talk. They want to see it act.


The opening of this facility has, I think quite understandably, prompted a lot of people to draw parallels between what’s happening now and what happened under Donald Trump. There’s been a lot of criticism from the Left, but charges of hypocrisy have also been leveled by various figures on the Right. Are these criticisms and charges of hypocrisy fair?


Mostly, the criticisms coming from the Right are just political attacks designed, perhaps, to justify or whitewash the wrongdoings of the Trump administration. But I think we can do two things at once here. We can recognize the ways that the Trump administration was absolutely abysmal on questions of migration, and also acknowledge the ways that Democrats have supported and implemented inhumane policies. Biden’s time as vice president certainly makes him a part of that history and trajectory.

But right now, there’s actually an opportunity for Democrats to stake out new ground. One of the things about the Trump era is that immigration politics became more polarized, and that actually creates opportunities. Whether or not it leads to real change is another question. So I think that there’s some legitimacy to the critique even if we can also recognize the instances that it’s not being made in good faith.


The White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki categorically denied the putting “kids in cages” charge. What’s your response specifically to that?


There’s no reason that the Biden administration needs to detain asylum seekers and migrants. Continuing to detain noncitizens, and especially migrant children, is continuing to put people in cages. The administration announced that it plans to end long-term family detention, which is positive, but they haven’t closed the facilities altogether. Activists and critics are pushing Biden, and rightfully so, to live up to his word and to shift the focus away from enforcement — to not double down on the harmful policies of the past.


Having issued the initial report that prompted this whole discussion, the Post has published several pieces of additional commentary on the newly reopened Carrizo Springs facility. One claim that’s been made is that there’s basically no alternative to detaining minors, with one commentator writing: “The problem is not the existence of the facility per se: Again, ORR [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] must hold migrant children before placing them, and that’s better than releasing them alone.” What’s your response to that claim?


Part of the problem is that these facilities exist at all. Historically, they have a horrible record when it comes to the well-being of the people being held. Instead, asylum seekers can and should be released into the United States. Many people come to reunite with parents, family members, and people they know. Expediting reunification and processing as many people as quickly as possible instead of holding them in detention for weeks, months, or years would be an obvious alternative. Part of the problem is a general lack of political imagination by the Biden administration. They need to think of new, alternate solutions centered around providing services and support to refugees and asylum seekers.


What’s your overall impression of Biden’s stated plans for immigration reform, and to what extent has the administration given the impression so far that it intends to honor its campaign promises?


I remain skeptical while also being cautiously optimistic, and there’s reason for both. There’s a dual imperative here for the Biden administration: on the one hand, we need broad, radical changes to the immigration system. That’s essential, and could happen, in part, through the legalization program they’ve proposed to Congress. At the same time, we also need to address the here and now and the needs of the people caught in the deportation machine today. It can’t be one or the other. The Biden administration needs to do both and needs to act quickly. Right now, one month into the Biden administration, tens of thousands of people have been deported. Punitive policies continue to wreak havoc on individuals and families every day that goes by.

So there’s an urgent need to reform the preexisting system and provide aid to those facing deportation while also pushing for broad changes that go far beyond reversing the damage of the past four years. The best way to abolish ICE, if we want to put it in those terms, would be a widespread legalization program and provisions for future migrants to come via authorized means. Reducing the number of people subject to the deportation machine is key. That would allow the administration to reduce DHS’s enforcement budget and shift the agency’s attention toward providing services.

These remain open-ended questions. We still don’t know how much follow-through there will be. The Biden administration has made a lot of promises that have sounded encouraging, but we’re already seeing the challenges the administration is facing in making those promises a reality. It’s too early to tell at this point, but what remains clear is that the Biden administration is more susceptible to pressure than the Trump administration was. The key now is to maintain that pressure and to continue organizing for progressive change.