As Donald Trump‘s administration assumed power, he and his team made announcements on immigration during his first week that were not just a departure from American convention but also sent a message of what the next four years would include.
His so-called Muslim ban, which he said constituted extreme vetting of “terrorist” threats, led to “chaos and anger” at airports and was called “harmful and hasty” by The International Rescue Committee and a “euphemism for discriminating against Muslims” by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
He also signed executive orders calling for the building of a wall along the Southern border and new enforcement priorities that deemed every undocumented immigrant in the country as deportable, a stark departure from the stance of his predecessor Barack Obama.
That was the plan.
Since the moment Trump rode down the escalator at Trump Tower announcing his bid for the presidency in 2015, he set his sights on illegal immigration, but the orders restricting travel from Muslim-majority countries also began the process of lessening legal immigration by directing agencies to develop and implement new immigration screening procedures. Legal immigration would also become a Trump administration target as the first week of actions suggested.
“We all focus on the chaos of the Muslim ban and a lot of the rhetoric but those first couple orders around interior enforcement laid out a map that the Trump administration executed over those four years,” said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, whose group has worked on bipartisan immigration legislation in the past bringing together faith, law enforcement, and business leaders.
President Joe Biden‘s first week on immigration has been a far different story.
Gone was the travel ban from Muslim-majority countries, wall construction was stopped, and Obama’s DACA program, long a target of Trump’s, was strengthened. But beyond rewinding Trump’s executive orders, Biden also declared a moratorium on deportations for immigrants who were in the country in November and announced comprehensive immigration reform legislation that faces an uphill battle in the Senate.
Biden’s immigration strategy was laid out during his campaign, its first pillar laid by undoing many of Trump’s policies, including a cornerstone of the former president’s campaign — a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. From there, Biden promised to move forward on protecting DACA and creating a pathway to citizenship.
Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden when he served as vice president, told Newsweek he doesn’t like to talk about private conversations he had with Biden but recalled the many times Biden remarked on the commonality between the Irish immigrant story and the Latino immigrant story. Biden’s actions out of the gate on immigration, Vela said, underscore the way he sees immigrants as part of the fabric of the nation.
“Comparing those two one-week time periods and those presidents and their actions, it’s exclusion vs. inclusion, lack of empathy vs. empathy, hate vs. love, disrespect vs. respect, it’s that simple,” Vela said.
But Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign and transition official in 2016, said Trump’s actions were necessary to shake the country loose from its traditional positions.
“The first couple weeks of Trump sent the message that it’s not business as usual and that he would prioritize American workers over cheap foreign workers,” Lanza said, before talking about how Trump together with his nationalist advisers like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller wanted to set a new course that would upend the status quo. “It was important for Bannon to provide that shock to counter the illegal immigration that was taking place over a number of years.”
Lanza argued that both men actually took a “shock and awe” approach because Biden ran on stabilizing DACA but didn’t talk about a pathway to citizenship every day. “He’s not going to be able to do amnesty for everyone he wants, he didn’t prepare for how difficult this fight was going to be.”
Though it didn’t often come up during the 2020 campaign with immigration sidelined amid the pandemic and protests over police brutality, Trump and Biden fundamentally view immigration to the United States differently, with Biden welcoming it and Trump seeking to clamp down throughout his presidency.
That goal and Trump’s shock to the immigration system led to denouncements and protests across the country at airports with stranded passengers and cries that his actions were unAmerican.
But Biden’s moves on immigration have not courted the same controversy. Fox News and right-wing media have derided Biden’s call for immigration reform as amnesty, but he has not drawn the widespread criticism that Trump did.
In fact, an early hallmark of the response to Biden’s pronouncements has been excitement and cautious optimism from activists who are surprised by how progressive Biden’s immigration policies are, with more scheduled to come on Friday.
There will be challenges for Biden. Already a Texas judge blocked the implementation of the 100-day moratorium on deportations, citing a failure “to provide any concrete, reasonable justification for a 100-day pause.”
But Noorani echoed the response from activists who have appreciated Biden’s commitment to the immigration promises he made during the campaign. Noorani said Biden “came out of the gate hot” with executive orders that were well-thought-out as a way to undo Trump’s administrative actions but also go beyond them.
“For him to do as much on immigration on day one was a clear message that the last four years of a stridently anti-immigrant administration were going to be turned around as fast as possible,” he added.
Still, one White House ally who found Trump’s first week to be objectionable, still came away finding commonalities in what Biden did on immigration during the same time period, pointing to the high-stakes bill that must make its way through a divided Senate.
“They’re very similar, they’re making huge promises to their base but ultimately are not going to be able to push it through due to outside forces,” the source said.