Six immigrant rights activists were arrested earlier this month for sitting in at Joe Biden’s campaign headquarters in Philadelphia. The protesters, from the national immigrant justice group Movimiento Cosecha, were calling on Biden to address his role in the nearly 3 million deportations during his tenure as vice president.
It was hopefully a sign of things to come as the 2020 primary heats up. Biden must answer for the role he has played over the decades in driving mass incarceration and deportation—both as vice president and as a senator.
The Obama administration carried out deportations in record-breaking numbers. Though the administration touted its focus as being on “felons, not families,” this is a fundamentally bad-faith dichotomy. People convicted of felonies still have families, and these families face the consequences of a deportation through no fault of their own. Children of deportees face severe financial hardship, food insecurity, and long-term mental health consequences. Faced with the loss of an income stream, caregivers report going hungry so that their children can eat.
Under Obama, the budget for immigration enforcement jumped at one point to a staggering $18 billion annually, more than all other law enforcement agencies combined. The administration saw to the dramatic expansion of the Secure Communities program, a Bush-era mandate that allowed local law enforcement to share information with federal immigration authorities, despite a ruling that the policy violated immigrants’ constitutional rights.
Obama, too, saw to the preemptive criminalization of migrants through Operation Streamline, a program that aggressively prosecuted migrants in mass hearings stripped of due process. Where the administration did push for reform, it was limited in scope and application. DACA, the administration’s landmark reform that deferred deportation for certain immigrants brought to the U.S as children, did not apply to recent arrivals, as Biden himself went to great lengths to make clear.
Even beyond his complicity in the Obama years, Biden’s record is damning. His ties to white supremacists are extensive and well-documented. So too is his penchant for mass incarceration. Many of the immigrant “felons” jailed during his vice presidency were drawn into the system in the first place by a wave of racist mass criminalization that Biden himself played a key role in setting into motion.
He once reportedly crowed, “Whenever people hear the words ‘drugs’ and ‘crime,’ I want them to think ‘Joe Biden.’”Even President George H.W. Bush wasn’t unapologetically cruel enough for him. Biden famously goaded Bush on a drug war crime bill, arguing that it did “not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them, or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”
The infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which Biden drafted, was one of his proudest achievements. Among many other things, it put 100,000 new police officers on the ground, largely in communities of color, and codified “three strikes” sentencing at the national level.
More pertinently, the 1994 crime bill authorized $18.4 million for a “criminal alien tracking center,” and $1.8 billion to help states with “the incarceration of criminal aliens.” Biden also voted in favor of the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, among the most sweeping expansions of America’s deportation apparatus. The bill introduced several new offenses as grounds for deportation, and shockingly, made the change retroactive. Overnight, families who had built lives in the U.S. found themselves in jeopardy over decades-old offenses.
In 1993, he voted to uphold an HIV travel ban that authorized the indefinite detention of Haitian refugees despite a wave of public sentiment in their favor. In 2006, he voted for further border enforcement in the form of the Secure Fence Act, which authorized the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the US-Mexico Border to the tune of nearly $2.5 billion in taxpayer money. Biden has also previously called for a crackdown on employers who hire “illegals” and fought against driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Recently, Biden released a justice reform platform that sets out to eliminate the death penalty, reel back harsh drug sentencing, and boost spending on education, housing, and mental healthcare. He’ll first have to address why he previously worked to expand the death penalty, increase drug penalties, and slash social services. Biden expects to be at the forefront of a movement he made necessary in the first place as a principal architect of the so-called “tough on crime” era. It’s absurd.
Biden’s grand new plan for immigration, too, is far from enough. Where Trump wants a wall, Biden wants militarized border surveillance. For asylum seekers pushed ever-deeper into deadly terrain, the distinction is meaningless. Border militarization under Democratic and Republican administrations alike has led to over 7,000 deaths since 1994: death by bipartisan consensus.
Days after the Philadelphia sit-in, activists from Movimiento Cosecha again confronted Biden, this time at a New Hampshire campaign stop. A young man spoke of his experience of losing his brother to deportation under Obama, and asked that Biden apologize for his role in building a mass deportation apparatus. Biden gave a half-hearted response, saying, “I will not apologize for deportation if the person committed a felony. I will apologize for deportations if in fact they deported because, in fact, they were engaged in a misdemeanor and or their family was separated.”
“A real apology would be for him to reunify the families he tore apart,” Catalina Santiago, media coordinator at Movimiento Cosecha, told Splinter after the encounter. “We won’t accept words without action.”
For decades, Biden has enabled and entrenched right-wing policy under the guise of “getting things done”. Biden, who in 2019 had to be told not to celebrate ties to white nationalists, and whose radical plan in these troubled times is “nothing will fundamentally change,” has shown us where his loyalty lies. His campaign should be called out for what it is: a gaffe-laden caricature of resistance perpetuated through misplaced nostalgia for an administration that made friendship bracelets while deporting and incarcerating communities wholesale.
Natascha Elena Uhlmann is a writer and activist. She is the author of Abolish ICE.