““There aren’t a lot of things that economists agree on,” Hathaway said, but one thing they do agree on is the “universal positive benefit” immigrants have on the economy and entrepreneurship. It’s irrefutable any way you look at the data.” —Ian Hathaway, Brookings Institution
America faces tough questions about immigration, with strong feelings all around. How should we treat the 11 million undocumented refugees who undertook perilous journeys to join our workforce? How do we respond to asylum seekers? What future can we offer “Dreamers”—the American-raised children of immigrants? Do immigrants really take jobs away from U.S. workers? Do illegal immigrants increase crime?
No surprise, Trump and Biden don’t see eye to eye on these questions, and simplistic headlines deprive voters of the chance to see a broader picture.
Let’s start with some data:
- As of 2018, 13.7% of residents in the U.S. had been born on foreign soil—a smaller share than in 1910.
- Researchers at George Mason University have documented that immigrant-owned firms in the tech industry had “uniformly higher rates of innovation” than firms run by U.S. citizens in 15 of the 16 measures they surveyed.
- Non-partisan studies of immigrant crime consistently find that immigrants do not increase local crime rates, are less likely to be involved in crime than their native-born peers, and are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.
Native-born Americans Are Nearly Twice as Likely to Spend Time in Prison as Illigal Immigrants
Each Candidate’s Overall Approach to Immigration
Trump’s core belief is that immigrants reduce job opportunities for native-born Americans. He has made good on anti-immigration campaign pledges through nearly 400 executive orders aimed at reducing and blocking all forms of immigration. Leaving immigrant quotas established by Congress unfilled, he seeks to end chain migration and the visa lottery, proposing a selective immigration process that blocks people arriving from “shithole countries.” Trump opposes amnesty for undocumented immigrants and has blocked legislation to give Dreamers a path to citizenship. His administration has prioritized arresting undocumented immigrants regardless of how long they’ve lived in the U.S., whether they have American-born children, and whether they have clean criminal histories.
Biden’s platform reflects the position of the traditionally conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce that immigrants help grow our economy and create jobs. Along with the majority of small-business owners, the organization supports legalizing undocumented immigrants to boost prosperity for all Americans. (Indeed, in 2020, the Chamber of Commerce—generally a Republican-leaning organization—sued the Trump administration for its restrictions on immigration, saying these rules were hurting the economy for all Americans.) Consider that in 2014, unauthorized immigrants made up 24 percent of maids and cleaners, an occupation expected to need 112,000 more workers by 2024. In construction, the number of additional laborers needed is estimated at close to 150,000. And while only 4 percent of personal care and home health aides are undocumented, the U.S. will soon require more than 800,000 people to fill the jobs necessary to take care of retiring baby boomers.
Biden proposes to end the anti-immigration policies of Trump and enact the principles of Obama’s 2013 reform proposal, providing a path to citizenship for undocumented residents and strengthening border screening technology at legal points of entry. He would halt the diversion of military funds to build a border wall. During the Obama administration, Biden played a lead role in resolving the 2014 wave of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S. border, negotiating a $750 million aid package to Central American governments to stem the flow of migrant children. He also plans to reverse Trump on temporary protected status, restoring the immigration program for citizens of some countries—including El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan—and extending it to Venezuelans. He believes that the contributions of immigrants are key to America’s past and future prosperity—a position that has strong support from businesses and the public.
US – Mexico Border Wall
Trump’s promises to build a wall along the southwest border and to force Mexico to pay for it were the centerpiece of his hard-line immigration stance during the 2016 campaign. Since then, the administration has replaced 275 miles of old border wall, and added 5 miles of new wall. To pay for the effort, Trump caused more than $7 billion to be diverted from the Pentagon budget, since Mexico declined Trump’s invitation to pay for it. This move was undertaken despite the fact that both formal and informal immigration to the U.S. are down overall in the past 10 years due to the 2008 recession: since 2010, more Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico than have entered the U.S.
Biden said in August that his immigration plan would end the diversion of Pentagon funds and focus instead on bringing border screening technologies up to date.
Separation of Children from Their Families
Trump’s 2018 zero-tolerance policy , which called for prosecuting all illegal migrants, led to the forcible separation of several thousand children from their parents at the Mexican border. The policy sparked outrage on humanitarian grounds, especially after the deaths of children in custody. The backlash led Trump to backpedal a bit, but the policy has continued through 2020.
Biden would end what he calls the “intimidation tactic” of prosecuting parents for minor immigration violations and prioritize reuniting children with their families. He would overturn policies that separate families at the border and prolong detentions. He also vows to establish public-private networks to address humanitarian needs at the border.
Deferred Action for Dreamers
Launched by the Obama-Biden administration in 2012, the DACA program grants deportation relief and work permits to about 644,000 young adults (mostly Hispanic) but does not provide them a path to citizenship.
In 2017, Trump moved to end DACA. The Supreme Court declined to uphold the motion, calling the termination of the program “arbitrary and capricious,” but left the door open for the administration to try to end it again at a future date. In July 2020, the administration clamped down on DACA, blocking new enrollment and limiting renewals to a period of just one year.
Biden has said that he would reverse Trump’s decision and strengthen protections for Dreamers, especially given that anyone born on U.S. soil is automatically accorded U.S. citizenship. He would also provide a path to citizenship for children who were not born in the U.S., along with the other law-abiding undocumented immigrants in the nation.
Trump signed an order in 2017 banning immigrants arriving from seven Muslim-majority countries, on the grounds that the ban would limit the entry of would-be terrorists into the country. A federal court blocked the initial ban, but in 2018 the Supreme Court upheld an amended version that has since been expanded to other countries. The version upheld by the Supreme Court places restrictions on travelers from five majority-Muslim nations: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. North Korea and Venezuela also face visa bans, but those measures affect relatively few travelers. Since then, Trump has placed restrictions on six additional countries, including Nigeria and three other African nations.
Biden has promised to rescind the bans, calling them an abuse of power “designed to target primarily black and brown immigrants” and maintaining that they discriminate against Muslims.
Coronavirus Immigration Restrictions
Trump has dramatically curtailed immigration and travel into the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that the steps were needed both for health reasons and to protect jobs for U.S. workers in the face of high unemployment. He has also restricted the entry of foreign students and many skilled foreign workers—drawing criticism from business leaders, especially in the tech sector—and attempted to strip international college students of their visas. If successful, that move would have cost U.S. universities millions of dollars in tuition and jeopardized the ability of U.S. companies to hire the highly skilled graduates of those institutions. Biden has accused Trump of using immigration bans to distract from his administration’s lackluster response to the pandemic and promised to repeal these steps.
Trump also implemented a “public-health emergency” policy that allows U.S. officials to bypass standard legal processes and rapidly deport migrants caught at the U.S.-Mexico border, including unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers. Biden has said that he will pause deportations for 100 days after taking office, but he has not yet said if he would reverse Trump’s sweeping pandemic-related restrictions. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. did deport record-high numbers of individuals residing in the country illegally.
The Bottom Line
America’s love-hate relationship with immigrants is as old as our nation. “Give me your tired, your poor” is a national value, but skepticism about foreign immigrants is just as deep-seated. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson feared that incoming Germans would ruin the country. Yet not only did that not happen, but the current president himself is a descendant of German immigrants.
Though every generation struggles to accept new neighbors, America without question has benefitted from their infusions of entrepreneurship, cultural capital and labor. In Trump and Biden, voters find a stark choice in attitudes. Trump plays on popular fears that foreigners bring crime and economic problems – something that is generally not supported by the data. (In fact: the reverse is actually true.) Biden advocates for policies that emphasize sensible border security while valuing immigrants’ contribution to American economic strength.