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So Democrat Joe Biden has pledged if he becomes president to dismantle the sweeping changes that President Trump has made to the U.S. immigration system. But could Biden do that? As NPR's John Burnett reports, it's easier said than done.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The people most closely watching to see if Biden defeats Trump and reverses his immigration crackdown may be beyond our borders.
BURNETT: Some 700 migrants languish in filthy tents pitched in a public park amid mud, rats and clouds of mosquitoes. The encampment is in Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. They're seeking asylum in the U.S. but stuck here under a Trump initiative known as Remain in Mexico. While they wait, they're closely following the U.S. presidential race, says Carla Garcia, an asylum-seeker from Honduras.
CARLA GARCIA: (Through interpreter) We place our hope in Joe Biden, who's the Democratic nominee, because he would treat the immigrants very differently than Trump has. We hope he wins and changes all of this that Trump has created. This is discrimination and racism.
BURNETT: Trump is touting that program's success. Here he is at a rally in Yuma, Ariz., last month.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We don't want them here. We want them outside. We got sued all over the place, and we won. So now they don't come into the United States. They can wait outside.
BURNETT: While the president claims to have restored a broken immigration system, human rights advocates are appalled at what they call the cruelty of his policies. Omar Jadwat is director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.
OMAR JADWAT: What the administration has sought to do is to simply turn off immigration and to do it unilaterally by presidential edict without the approval of Congress. That project should be reversed.
BURNETT: And that's exactly what Joe Biden pledges to do. His position paper on immigration - 51 bullet points over 22 pages - seeks to roll back Trump's accomplishments and reenact Obama-era policies.
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JOE BIDEN: If I'm elected president, we're going to immediately end Trump's assault on the dignity of immigrant communities. We're going to restore our moral standing in the world and our historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum-seekers.
BURNETT: Biden says no more border wall, no more separating immigrant families, no more prolonged detentions or deportations of peaceable migrant workers. He would restore the asylum system and create a road map to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It's a long to-do list.
SARAH PIERCE: I don't think it's realistic that Biden, in four years, could unroll everything that Trump did.
BURNETT: Sarah Pierce and another analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, recently catalogued more than 400 executive actions Trump has taken on immigration, from heavier border and interior enforcement to restricting asylum to slashing refugee visas to creating Remain in Mexico.
PIERCE: Because of the intense volume and pace of changes the Trump administration enacted while in office, even if we have a new administration, Trump will continue to have had an impact on immigration for years to come.
BURNETT: But Biden faces a host of obstacles that could slow his immigration counterrevolution. First, there's the specter of renewed chaos at the Southern border. Last year, groups as large as a thousand Central Americans at a time were wading across the Rio Grande into El Paso to request asylum. The Border Patrol was overwhelmed and ended up detaining families in primitive, unsanitary conditions, and no one wants a repeat of that.
Ron Vitiello, former deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, worries that Biden will cancel bilateral agreements with Mexico that have dramatically slowed the migrant flow.
RON VITIELLO: If Mexico right now decided that they weren't going to continue to help us, you know, people would start coming through like we saw the caravan two springs ago. There's no reason that it wouldn't come back as bad as it was.
BURNETT: NPR asked a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, what would happen if a new president gave migrants a green light? The adviser said they're cognizant of the pull factor. Then, there is the issue of the enforcers. Immigration agents have enjoyed extraordinary support from the White House. The Trump administration has bragged about unshackling them to let them do their jobs more aggressively. What happens if Joe Biden tries to put the shackles back on?
ANGELA KELLEY: That isn't something that's a light switch. You can't change culture within an organization that vast overnight.
BURNETT: Angela Kelley is a senior adviser to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
KELLEY: So I agree that it's going to be a long, long road.
BURNETT: A Biden presidency would also find itself skirmishing with conservative lawyers over its reversals the way Trump has been tied up in federal court fighting the ACLU. RJ Hauman is with the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
RJ HAUMAN: If Biden is elected and his administration starts rescinding executive actions that Trump had firm legal authority to do, groups like us will sue. That is a fact.
BURNETT: Finally, there's the pandemic. An NPR/Ipsos poll showed a majority of Americans support Trump's decision to shut the borders to all types of immigrants to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Biden has not said if he would reverse that order, so it's anybody's guess when the virus will subside and the nation can welcome immigrants again.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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