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Getting Past ‘Smart Walls’ to Build a Smart Immigration Policy

Biden talked the talk on border policy during the campaign, but has been a different guy since becoming president.

Angelika Albaladejo

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Asylum seekers are detained on April 23 by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande in Texas. (Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

When President Joe Biden started his 100th day in office, hundreds of undocumented immigrants and their supporters gathered outside the White House gates protesting his administration’s “broken promises on immigration.”

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On the campaign trail, Biden had assured the voters of color who turned out for him in record numbers that he would immediately take bold steps to reverse his predecessor’s policies and reshape the nation’s immigration system into one that is “fair and humane.”

But so far, the president’s actions and plans are reinforcing long-established approaches, instead of advancing alternatives, advocates and experts told Capital & Main. Why? Biden is making the same political miscalculation as Barack Obama before him: holding back on reforms and doubling down on enforcement tactics because of political fears that Democrats will otherwise be critiqued by Republicans as soft on security and law enforcement.
 


“A ‘smart border wall’ is not a replacement for Trump’s border wall. It’s an extension,” said Aly Panjwani, writer and policy analyst.


 
While GOP attacks have continued anyway, Biden’s proposed immigration strategies focus on deterring and surveilling migrants by expanding a high tech “smart wall” on the border, increasing for-profit “alternatives to detention” and assigning Vice President Kamala Harris to “address the root causes of migration” in large part by restoring the aid program that Biden oversaw during Obama’s presidency.

These strategies have bipartisan support from key leaders in Congress and promise to be lucrative for technology and private prison companies. But advocates say the approach is costly, ineffective and harmful when compared to the community based programs they are urging the Biden administration to adopt.

“We need to see new efforts and progress made, not just a copy and paste of the Obama administration,” said Daniella Burgi-Palomino, the co-director of the Latin America Working Group, a foreign policy advocacy organization. “If there is this effort to do the same old thing again, U.S. policy isn’t really going to address these root causes we’ve been talking about for years and years.”

“Enforcement through deterrence does not work”

In his early days in office, Biden has hesitated to use his far reaching presidential powers or to tap his Democrat-led Congress to make significant changes to the country’s immigration system. Instead, his administration seems to be holding out for agreement across party aisles.

While Biden has lifted some of former President Donald Trump’s most extreme policies, he’s maintaining the immigration system, which was “created with the explicit purpose of scaring people,” said Jorge Loweree, the policy director for the American Immigration Council.

Since the late 1990s, the U.S. government has relied on strategies meant to instill fear and create hardship within immigrant communities in the United States and for potential migrants abroad, with the intention of deterring others from trying to come to the U.S.
 


“If there is this effort to do the same old thing again,” says policy advocate Daniella Burgi-Palomino, “U.S. policy isn’t really going to address these root causes we’ve been talking about for years.”


 
“We’ve gone so far in this country, under the Trump administration, as forcibly ripping children from their parents’ arms. And we’ve found that even a policy as draconian as that doesn’t deter people from coming,” Loweree said. “Enforcement through deterrence does not work.”

But Biden hasn’t given up on deterrence. While he and top Democrats in Congress have opposed the construction of a physical wall at the U.S. southern border, his administration plans to spend at least $1 billion on surveillance technology to build up a “smart wall.”

“A ‘smart border wall’ is not a replacement for Trump’s border wall. It’s an extension,” said Aly Panjwani, the policy and advocacy manager for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, which litigates and advocates against discriminatory government monitoring. Biden’s proposal would expand an already vast surveillance system, normalizing the collection of data and amplifying problems with flawed and biased technologies that disproportionately target Black, brown and Indigenous communities, he said.

“Surveillance is never a way to address the root causes of an issue. It’s really a Band-Aid for bad policies,” said Jeramie Scott, who directs the Surveillance Oversight Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. By funneling taxpayer resources into these technologies, the government is also opening the door to a slew of privacy, civil liberty and human rights problems, he said.

Similarly, Biden’s intentions to pour more taxpayer money into expanding “alternatives to detention” run by for-profit companies like GEO Group, the country’s largest private prison corporation, are actually a “technological extension of detention,” said Panjwani.

And, when it comes to Biden’s aid package for the northern countries of Central America, Burgi-Palomino from the Latin America Working Group raised concerns that a “wrong approach from the U.S. could increase migration,” rather than reduce it.

If Biden’s administration doesn’t take into consideration how the region has changed and avoid past pitfalls, like directing aid to corrupt governments and focusing on ramped up law enforcement to stop migrants, Burgi-Palomino said he’ll be missing opportunities to tackle the problems forcing people to leave their home countries and to set up a safe and orderly border intake process.

“An alternative approach”

Biden’s stance so far has been to uphold traditional ways of managing migrants through surveillance, arrests, detention and deportation. But advocates say that shifting resources out of these punitive measures and into community-based services would save money and lives, and prove more effective at processing newcomers.

The Defund Hate Coalition, a group of dozens of immigrant communities, faith leaders and immigrant rights advocates, is calling on the U.S. government to reduce and ultimately eliminate funding for the country’s two largest immigration enforcement agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Gabriela Viera, the advocacy manager for Detention Watch Network and a member of Defund Hate, told Capital & Main that the “divest-invest” model they are proposing would move taxpayer dollars from enforcement to services, such as affordable housing, community health care and environmental protections.
 


So far, the president’s actions and plans are reinforcing long-established approaches, instead of advancing alternatives.


 
The billions of dollars currently earmarked for enforcement could be spent on building welcoming centers to process and resettle migrants, providing universal legal representation and giving grants to communities that have historically relied economically on detention to help them transition to a new role in the system, according to the proposal.

“It’s not just going to benefit immigrants, it’s going to benefit communities at large,” said Cynthia Garcia, the national campaigns manager for community protection at United We Dream, the nation’s largest immigrant youth-led advocacy group.

Recent polls suggest that about half of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the situation at the border and three-quarters of Latinos, Republican and Democrat alike, say that the immigration system needs major changes or a total rebuild.

“As long as the United States continues to see migration as something we have to stop, rather than acknowledge and facilitate, people will continue to lose their lives and people will continue to be forced into those harmful conditions,” Garcia said.

If Biden and the Democrats don’t learn these lessons and continue playing political games, instead of delivering on campaign promises, Garcia warned that they also risk discouraging the youth and people of color who voted him into office.

“If they don’t move in the direction that our people have been demanding they do, I believe firmly that it will be a miscalculation,” Garcia said.


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