As Democratic lawmakers unveiled their legislative proposal on Thursday, they framed it as a deliberate rejection of the Trump administration’s approach. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a chief sponsor of the bill, said that by sending Biden to the White House, Americans had effectively tasked Congress with “fixing our immigration system, which is a cornerstone of Trump’s hateful horror show.”
The bill would pave a pathway to citizenship for nearly all the undocumented immigrants living in the United States, increase legal immigration, and speed up consideration of asylum seekers. It would also take steps to secure the country’s borders and ports of entry, while investing $4 billion in the economies of Central American countries to lessen the incentive for emigration. And it would strike the word “alien” from federal law in favor of “noncitizen.”
To say that this represents a break with past approaches to immigration reform would be an understatement. The last time Congress passed major reform was in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a law making it illegal for employers to hire immigrants without papers.
President George W. Bush later put a center-right plan for comprehensive reform at the heart of his appeal to Hispanic voters. He won 44 percent of the Latino vote in the 2004 election, according to exit polls — exceptionally high for a Republican candidate — but reform never passed.
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His successor, Barack Obama, proposed an immigration bill that balanced enforcement measures with a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, but it never became a top priority, and foundered. That left many immigration advocates underwhelmed — and, in some cases, wary of Biden, Obama’s former vice president.
Under Obama, the downward trend in the overall number of deportations continued from previous administrations, and he put an emphasis on deporting people with criminal records. But ultimately he deported over five million people, while cementing the role of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency installed under Bush.
Trump rose to the Republican nomination, and then the presidency, partly on the strength of his opposition to immigration, and the racial overtones it allowed him to sound. His draconian border policies may have been the defining issue of his presidency, and helped rally his base around his conservative populism.