Will Biden build a wall? (HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

December 1, 2022   6 mins

Inflation, crime, and immigration were the three big issues that were supposed to power a Republican “red wave” in the midterms. That didn’t happen, but these problems remain as real and as urgent as ever. Should they remain unresolved, they could easily power a Republican victory in 2024.

Yet there is not much President Biden and the Democrats can do about two of these issues. Inflation stems from endemic problems in the supply-side capacities of the economy that will likely take a long time to fix. Crime, meanwhile, is heavily dependent on the actions of state and local governments.

That leaves immigration. This might seem an odd choice: with talk of an ongoing border crisis, immigration is the one issue that Republicans own and Democrats struggle with. But a defining feature of the Biden administration has been its ability to “flip the script” on critics on either side of the political spectrum.

Where the Left wing of the Democratic Party once derided Biden as an out-of-touch “neoliberal” dinosaur, he ended up passing the most far-reaching progressive economic reforms in years. Where Republicans tried to depict him as a hostage to his party’s activist base, he has repudiated that base’s extremist slogans and refused to be tarred as a radical “socialist”. Indeed, when the president withdrew from Afghanistan in August last year, he ended up flipping the script on the anti-interventionist Right. At least one conservative was honest enough to recognise it at the time: an ecstatic Ann Coulter tweeted: “Thank you, President Biden, for keeping a promise Trump made, but then abandoned when he got to office
 ” She even wondered out loud: “At this rate, maybe he’ll build the wall.”

This begs the question: what if Biden did build the wall? Or, to put it more seriously, given that Biden actually stopped building what little of the wall had actually been commissioned by Trump, what if Biden fixed, or at least seriously improved, US immigration policy? This might not be as hard as it seems. The first thing to note is that his predecessor, Donald Trump, did not achieve much on immigration. The GOP had full control of the US government for Trump’s first two years as president. Yet Republicans failed again and again to pass comprehensive immigration reform when there was nothing stopping them. Exposing this Republican record of posturing would be the ideal place to start a political counteroffensive on immigration now that Trump is officially a candidate for president again.

There were proposals floated in Trump’s time such as the 2017 RAISE Act, which would have ended family reunification as the basis of US immigration policy, and the two Goodlatte bills of 2018, which authorised generous funding for the wall and other more serious policies. But these came to nothing: the former was not even voted on while the latter bills met with only erratic support from the White House and were defeated by Republicans themselves.

The one policy that could conceivably fix the US immigration system is “Mandatory E-Verify” (included in one of the Goodlatte bills), which would require employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that new hires are in the country legally. Enshrining this requirement in federal law and imposing fines on employers found in violation would radically shift the emphasis of enforcement from the supply to the demand side, killing the incentive structure that fuels much illegal immigration.

What is shocking (but not surprising) is that Mandatory E-Verify was effectively opposed by Trump and most GOP lawmakers. Asked point blank on Fox News if he supported the idea, Trump was blunt: “It’s a very tough thing to ask [employers] to go through that. So, in a certain way, I speak against myself, but you also have to have a world of some practicality.”

The reason Trump prefers instead to talk about a border wall is because it is a mostly symbolic rather than systemic resolution to illegal immigration. Consider that in recent years more than half of illegal immigrants to the US have come through legal visa overstays instead of crossing the southern border, something that will not be fixed by a wall. (Interestingly, the man who attacked Paul Pelosi with a hammer, David DePape, is a visa overstay from Canada.) Too many in the American business class, in red states as well as blue, suffer from an addiction to cheap, precarious migrant labour. Trump himself regularly and prodigiously employed undocumented workers in his various properties right up until the middle of his presidency.

Ron DeSantis is no different. He merely copied Trump’s theatrical approach to the immigration issue, which privileges attention-grabbing stunts — such as flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard — over substantive policy. As Florida Governor, DeSantis signed an E-Verify bill that was widely seen as toothless. One disgruntled state senator described it as “fake E-Verify… optional E-Verify.”

Even those Trump-era policies worth preserving originally came with caveats and qualifications. For instance, while Trump imposed restrictions like Title 42 during the pandemic — expelling those who have recently been in a country where Covid was present — he did so while looking to make exceptions for low-skill migrant workers and high-net worth immigrant investors. Yes, Trump established “Remain in Mexico”, formally the Migrant Protection Protocols. But its promise was bungled by sloppy execution, since it failed to actually protect migrants from gangs, leaving one to wonder just how tenable such a chaotic scheme would have been as a long-term fix if, for instance, Trump won a second term.

Biden cancelled it, but there is no good reason why he cannot ultimately retain its premise, bring it back in new form, and improve on its execution. Admittedly, this would be a challenge. Both the expansive application of Title 42 and the “Remain in Mexico” programme were discretionary policies borne of executive prerogative and, as such, are especially vulnerable to being overturned by the courts. With that in mind, Biden would need to integrate border security measures into a comprehensive immigration reform law — something Trump and the Republican congressional leadership have shown themselves uninterested in passing.

In retrospect, it should now be clear that governing was the last thing conservatives cared about. Trump relished the media spectacle of a perpetual migrant crisis: an endless state of siege that he could exploit but never truly had to resolve. What better way, then, for Biden to asphyxiate the Trumpian Right than by actually resolving the issue? The way to do it would be to incorporate Mandatory E-Verify into the stalled Biden immigration bill that sits in Congress, and to make that measure the centerpiece of the administration’s messaging. The Democrats, in other words, can call the GOP’s bluff on immigration by presenting a bill that goes even further than what they were willing to entertain under Trump, whose presidential campaign they could kneecap.

Such a pivot would be politically difficult. It would involve the administration going over the heads of the bleeding hearts — and organised NGOs and lobbying groups — in their own base, who will accuse the president of being Trumpier than Trump. But Biden can always turn to centre-Left parties in Canada, New Zealand and Denmark for advice on how to craft distinctly progressive rationales for regulating immigration, which in those countries has worked to deflate the electoral prospects of Right-wing parties. It should be noted, for instance, that Justin Trudeau’s Canada has its own wall and its own version of Mandatory E-Verify.

Or closer to home, he could enlist the likes of Bernie Sanders on the Left and border Democrats like Representative Vicente Gonzalez in the centre, who have argued in favour of taking sensible stands against both Trumpian xenophobia and open-borders utopianism. The administration might even call it “the Sanders-Gonzalez immigration bill” and watch the activist Left accuse it of being racist.

Even better, Democrats could join firm immigration enforcement at home with generous humanitarian aid in Central America and reframe the policy as a “New Alliance for Progress” in the vein of JFK, thereby converting immigration from a conservative-owned issue into an authentically progressive policy landmark.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy recently wrote an op-ed advising his party to “to outflank the fake, anti-neoliberal populism of the Right” by countering globalisation with a progressive “economic nationalism”. And while Democrats have had no problems restraining the cross-border flows of capital and goods that constitute globalisation, they have hesitated to do the same for cross-border flows of labour. Flipping the script on immigration would allow them to do just that — and clear all confusion as to which party can best govern in a post-globalised era.

Settling the immigration issue would embarrass Republicans and grant Biden the political capital he could then expend on trying to resolve the other big issues such as inflation and the economy or even crime. Political greatness comes to those leaders who can transcend ideological boundaries in creative and ambitious ways. Just as it was Nixon who went to China and Bismarck who founded the first welfare state, it might just fall on “Brandon” to control the southern border.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.