Donald Trump’s immigration policy was coherently inhumane: By any means possible he tried to stop the immigration of brown and Black people along the southern border. He built as much of the wall as could be managed, he separated small children from their families, he required applicants for asylum to wait in Mexico to be processed, you know the litany. There was never any doubt where he stood.
Fundamentally, Trump could do this for two reasons. First, as in everything he did, he was only talking to his base, who liked and encouraged what he did. He wasn’t trying to reach swing voters. Second, he had in the Border Patrol in particular and Homeland Security in general a bureaucracy that supported him, was comfortable doing his bidding.
In contrast, Joe Biden’s immigration policy and practice at the southern border seems markedly incoherent. He was elected on a severe critique of Trump’s policy and a promise of a more humane turn. His own base emphatically supported him in this promise.
Yet we have the recent spectacle of Border Patrol agents on horseback herding unarmed Haitians who are trying to reach U.S. territory, and involuntary repatriation of thousands of Haitians back to a country many had not seen for 10 years, a country completely unable to receive them humanely. At the same time, thousands of other Haitians have been quietly admitted to the U.S. and given dates for their appearance in immigration courts.
Biden has vowed to stop family separation and to reunite families separated under Trump, but he has also kept Trump’s regulation that cynically used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to summarily deny immigrants entry.
In short, Biden’s administration has been all over the place: You can’t predict what comes next.
The reasons for this incoherence are the mirror image of Trump’s coherence. Biden won the presidency by going beyond his base, and he’s trying to stay in touch with those swing voters (many of whom voted Republican in down-ballot races) on immigration.
Most of these voters are white, and predictably uncomfortable with thousands of Blacks pushing their way across the southern border. So even though they might have disliked the inhumanity of Trump, they don’t want open borders, either.
So, Biden must simultaneously appeal to his liberal/left base, who are fine with immigration by people of color, and to the swing voters who are at best skeptical about that.
Whatever policy Biden tries to enforce at the southern border, the instrument he has at his disposal is the Border Patrol, which as we have seen was the willing, enthusiastic enforcer of Trump’s policies. These are the very same people. Whatever norms there may be about career civil servants faithfully executing the orders of their political superiors, the vast majority of Border Patrol agents probably voted for Trump and will enforce policies counter to Trump’s unenthusiastically at best.
Each agency has its own culture, and just as most career Environmental Protection Agency employees would have voted for Biden, the opposite can be expected of the Border Patrol.
This, fundamentally, is the problem any president has in making the bureaucracy the faithful instrument of his or her policies.
If Biden is to avoid more men-on-horseback incidents, he and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will have to be much more forceful in managing this bureaucracy.
As to straddling the demands of the base and the swing voters, Biden must do more than just waffle and hope nobody notices. What is really needed is the articulation of a coherent new approach to immigration, something this pragmatic centrist tends to avoid.
John Peeler is a retired Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Bucknell.