The Stakes: What Trump and Biden have done about the border — and what they want to do next

No issue in U.S. politics is more contentious right now than the situation at America’s southern border.

Since President Biden took office in 2021 and reversed some of former President Donald Trump’s hard-line restrictions, illegal crossings have surged to a record high of more than 2 million per year, on average.

Democrats and other defenders of Biden’s record say the causes are complicated and predate his presidency: foreign violence, economic hardship and cartels that profit from crossings.

Republicans and other Biden critics argue that the president has effectively encouraged migrants to try their luck by using immigration parole at a historic scale and ordering a pause on most U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests and deportations.

But how could the differences between Biden and Trump reshape U.S. border policy going forward?

November’s election will be the first since 1892 to feature two presidents — one former, one current — competing as the major-party nominees. As a result, this year’s candidates already have extensive White House records to compare and contrast.

Here’s what Biden and Trump have done so far about the border — and what they plan to do next.

Part two in an ongoing series. Read part one: Abortion.

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Trump: More than anything else, Trump built his political following on a hard-line approach to immigration.

Starting in 2011, Trump boosted his profile on the right by positioning himself as the leading proponent of the false conspiracy theory that then-President Barack Obama — whose father was from Kenya — wasn’t born in Hawaii as stated on his birth certificate. In 2016, Trump finally admitted that so-called birthers (those who believe Obama isn’t a native-born citizen) were wrong and that “​​Obama was born in the United States.”

The previous year, Trump infamously launched his first presidential campaign by claiming that most Mexican immigrants are “people [who] have lots of problems … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (In truth, immigrants commit significantly less crime than native-born Americans.)

Trump spent much of 2016 vowing to build a physical wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico — possibly fortified with spikes, electricity and an alligator moat — and make Mexico pay for it.

According to the New York Times, “the idea [of a border wall] was initially suggested by a Trump campaign aide … as a memory aid to prompt the candidate to remember to talk about immigration in his speeches. But it soon became a rallying cry at his events.”

“You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving,” Trump told the Times editorial board, “I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ And they go nuts.”

Mexican immigrants weren’t the only ones in Trump’s crosshairs. In late 2015, after domestic terrorists Syed Rizwan Farook (a U.S. citizen born in Chicago) and his wife, Tashfeen Malik (a native of Pakistan who’d lived in the U.S. for years), killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Around the same time, Trump said he would create a “deportation force” that would expel millions of unauthorized immigrants. “We have at least 11 million people in this country that came in illegally,” he claimed during one primary debate. “They will go out.”

Biden: Biden entered the 2020 Democratic presidential primary under pressure from the left on immigration.

As Obama’s vice president, Biden could claim partial credit for 2012’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shielded from deportation about 700,000 immigrants (known as Dreamers) who were brought to the country as children.

Yet Obama and Biden also failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform during their first year in office, as promised, then wound up deporting 3 million immigrants — including an estimated 1.7 million who had no criminal record — by the end of their first term.

“[Obama’s] title of deporter in chief was earned,” Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said at the time.

As a result, Biden sought to mend ties to Latino voters by calling Obama’s deportation approach a “big mistake” and pledging to reverse Trump’s border policies — while making DACA permanent and providing a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

“We’re going to immediately end Trump’s assault on the dignity of immigrant communities,” Biden said in his acceptance speech at 2020’s “virtual” Democratic National Convention. “We’re going to restore our moral standing in the world and our historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers.”

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Trump: During his four years in office, Trump issued more than 400 executive actions on immigration.

The changes started almost immediately. On Jan. 27, 2017, Trump signed an order seeking to block travelers from seven majority Muslim countries for 90 days while suspending refugee resettlement and prohibiting Syrian refugees indefinitely. Challenged in court, the administration issued revised travel bans as time went on, removing or adding certain countries.

Trump quickly zeroed in on his signature border wall as well. But Congress refused to meet his funding demands, sparking a lengthy government shutdown. Ultimately, Trump managed to build just 458 miles of barrier along the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico border — nearly all of them in areas where older barriers already stood.

Mexico did not pay for any of Trump’s border wall.

Frustrated with the continued crush of illegal border crossings, Trump green-lit a plan in 2018 to separate migrant children from their parents or caregivers at the border and then criminally prosecute the adults. Trump eventually ended his “family separation” policy — but only after images of crying, traumatized kids detained in crowded facilities sparked a national outcry.

Despite Trump’s vow to expel “millions” of immigrants, deportations by ICE officers — who were given broad latitude to go after anyone without legal status — averaged just 80,000 per year during his presidency (significantly lower than the annual rate under Obama).

Why? Trump supporters and critics largely agree that the former president’s strict policies — including narrowing who is eligible for asylum; making it more difficult to qualify for permanent residency or citizenship; rolling back DACA; and forcing Central American asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed — “deterred” some migrants from even trying to cross the border.

But while Trump’s supporters described this as deterrence through strength, Trump’s critics called it deterrence through cruelty.

In March 2020, Trump implemented the emergency health authority known as Title 42, which allowed border officials to rapidly turn away asylum seekers on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19 — without giving them a chance to appeal for U.S. protection.

Biden: Biden vowed to reverse Trump’s immigration policies on “day one” of his administration — and it’s a promise he largely kept.

In early 2021, the new president halted construction of the border wall; ended his predecessor’s travel bans; created a task force to reunify migrant families separated under Trump; reinstated DACA; ended Title 42 expulsions for unaccompanied minors; and ordered a pause on most ICE arrests and deportations, issuing new guidelines directing officers to prioritize national security threats, serious criminals and recent border crossers.

At the same time, Biden warned that without more funding and stronger “guardrails,” such as additional asylum judges, the U.S. could “end up with 2 million people on our border” and “a crisis on our hands that complicates what we’re trying to do.”

“Migrants and asylum seekers absolutely should not believe those in the region peddling the idea that the border will suddenly be fully open to process everyone on day one,” said Susan Rice, Biden’s domestic policy adviser. “It will not.”

Yet the message didn’t get through, and a variety of factors — foreign turmoil, a waning pandemic — triggered new surges at the border, overwhelming an underresourced asylum system and flooding big cities with more new arrivals than they could handle.

Initially, Biden kept Title 42 in place (until May 2023), expelling five times more border crossers than Trump did (in large part because more migrants were trying to cross the border illegally).

Yet the president’s broader approach — “expanding opportunities for migrants to arrive legally while applying tougher penalties to those who break the law,” as the Washington Post recently put it — hasn’t stemmed the tide, and Congressional Republicans have repeatedly refused his requests for more border funding.

As a result, national surveys show that voters are unhappy about the border situation and prefer Republicans to handle it. A February Gallup survey found that nearly 20% of those who disapproved of Biden’s job performance cited “illegal immigration/open borders” as the biggest reason — more than any other issue.

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Trump: More of the same — with the emphasis on more.

Among the ramped-up policies Trump is reportedly planning, according to the New York Times:

  • “round[ing] up undocumented people already in the United States on a vast scale and detain[ing] them in sprawling camps while they wait to be expelled”

  • reviving his Muslim travel ban and his COVID-era Title 42 restrictions on the basis “that migrants carry other infectious diseases like tuberculosis”

  • and “scour[ing] the country for unauthorized immigrants and deport[ing] people by the millions per year” by redirecting military funds and deploying federal agents, local police officers and National Guard soldiers to help ICE.

In an April interview with Time magazine, Trump confirmed that he is plotting “a massive deportation of people” using “local law enforcement” and the National Guard — and “if they weren’t able to,” he added, “then I’d use [other parts of] the military.”

He also refused to “rule out” detention camps, saying “it’s possible that we’ll do it to an extent.”

“We will begin the largest domestic deportation operation in American history,” Trump promised in February, adding elsewhere that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” and coming to the U.S. from “mental institutions.”

His inspiration, he has said, is the “Eisenhower model” — a reference to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1954 campaign, known by the ethnic slur “Operation Wetback,” to round up and expel Mexican immigrants in what amounted to a nationwide “show me your papers” rule.

Trump has also said he would suspend refugee resettlement, revive his “Remain in Mexico” policy and end DACA. He has even left the door open to resuming “zero tolerance” family separations.

Biden: Most Democrats spent 2023 avoiding border politics while privately fretting about how the issue might affect the 2024 election. But the president finally bowed to GOP pressure last fall, agreeing to bipartisan border talks; the hope was that “a deal might take the issue off the table for his reelection campaign,” according to the New York Times.

In January, Senate negotiators actually struck a $20 billion bipartisan deal — a deal that gave the GOP much of what it had asked for, including provisions that would restrict claims for parole, raise the bar for asylum, speed the expulsion of migrants and automatically shutter the border if attempted illegal crossings reach a certain average daily threshold.

But Trump balked — and following his lead, Republicans on Capitol Hill effectively doomed the legislation.

“We can fight about the border — or we can fix it,” Biden said during his State of the Union address. “I’m ready to fix it. Send me the border bill now.”

In lieu of legislation, Biden is also considering using the same section of the federal code behind Trump’s most controversial actions, known as 212(f), to issue a “nuclear” executive order that would unilaterally crack down on migrants’ ability to seek asylum at the border after crossing illegally — but that would also risk legal challenges and left-wing backlash.

“Some are suggesting that I should just go ahead and try it,” Biden said in a recent interview with Univision. “And if I get shut down by the court, I get shut down by the court.”

Part two in an ongoing series. Read part one: Abortion.

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