Joseph R. Biden was there every step of the way as the country got tough on illegal immigration.
He voted as a senator to stiffen laws against hiring illegal immigrants, to speed up deportations for border jumpers, to hire more Border Patrol agents and to build 700 miles of a double-tier border wall.
He also served as the sidekick to President Obama, who earned the nickname “Deporter in Chief” for his record-setting pace of removals of illegal immigrants.
Now in the White House, Mr. Biden has attempted to plant himself far to the left on immigration. He called for a chance at legalization for all illegal immigrants, attempted to slash deportations, halted border wall construction and punctured the rest of the immigration enforcement framework erected by his predecessor.
Immigration rights activists aren’t sold.
Erika Gutierrez, a Hispanic outreach coordinator, said the atmosphere for immigrants is “a little better” than it was under President Trump, but she is not convinced Mr. Biden understands the issue.
“Right now, I see him as a good advocate,” Ms. Gutierrez said. “With all my heart, I hope he becomes a champion because that is what we need.”
Like much of Mr. Biden‘s politics, his thinking on immigration has changed dramatically over his nearly five decades in Washington. He has never been particularly committed to fighting for either side.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Mr. Biden has been a “finger in the wind” politician on immigration, usually with an eye more on polling and votes than on his principles.
During his doomed 2008 presidential campaign, he bragged about voting to build border fencing. In 2020, he took the opposite approach and pledged to halt all wall construction no matter the cost or effect on illegal border crossings.
In the 1990s, Mr. Biden voted to impose stronger restrictions on public benefits for illegal immigrants, to make it tougher to hire illegal immigrants and to expand the immigration enforcement apparatus.
As president, he has erased Trump-era policies to make legal immigrants prove their self-sufficiency and sought to handcuff the enforcement regime.
“I wasn’t sure what to feel about him because of his previous career,” Ms. Gutierrez said. “He wasn’t very much in favor of immigration laws that supported people. To get the support he needed, his tendency to turn a little to the progressive side was a good thing.”
Ms. Gutierrez, who works at DelawareCAN, an advocacy group in Mr. Biden‘s home state, said the president’s moves fall short of their potential.
“I don’t feel that he is a champion because to be a champion, you have to put your heart out there for the right reasons,” she said. “You have to see it with strong policy.”
Activists applauded Mr. Biden‘s rollback of Trump-era policies and his demands that Congress tackle a big legalization bill this year. They were particularly pleased that the president said he wanted to include immigration reform in the $3.5 trillion expansion of the social safety net that Democrats are writing.
Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats plan to use a special Senate procedure to pass the massive spending bill without support from a single Republican.
Mr. Biden has not completely reversed course from the previous administration.
He has not expunged the Trump-era coronavirus border shutdowns, either for legal traffic or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public health order. Known as Title 42, the order gives the government authority to immediately send back many border jumpers.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal firebrand from New York, slammed Mr. Biden‘s approach. She said it is “wrong and it’s inhumane” and ignores the role the U.S. has played in destabilizing Latin American countries, spawning the waves of migration.
Mr. Biden has curtailed arrests and deportations but has not dismantled the detention network run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Demonstrators interrupted the president’s 100th-day victory rally in Georgia by chanting, “End detention now.”
A day later, activists protesting Democrats’ “broken promises to the immigrant community” were arrested outside the White House.
Brenda Lopez Romero, an immigration lawyer and chair of the Democratic Party in Gwinnett County, Georgia, said the Biden administration deserves credit for speeding up the processing of migrants at the border and changing the way Immigration and Customs Enforcement carries out its mission.
Still, she said activists are waiting for Mr. Biden to deliver on campaign promises such as legalization.
“There are a lot of changes that are visible and noticeable, but from the policy side, particularly the legislation side, I think immigration advocates are trying to push the Biden administration to do more,” she said. “I definitely think we are very much a work in progress with this administration as it relates to immigration.”
Mr. Biden‘s strongest opponent on immigration has been the federal courts. Judges have halted his Inauguration Day deportation pause, enjoined his attempt to end the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, and blocked his effort to impose new limits on targets for arrest and deportation.
The courts also ordered the president to stop accepting applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
The trouble for Mr. Biden is that his actions on immigration seem to have spurred an unprecedented wave of arrivals at the border. This year is on pace to set a record for border deaths, and the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl is flowing across the border.
Suffolk University released a national poll last month that found registered voters disapproved of Mr. Biden‘s handling of immigration by a 62% to 25% margin.
A Harvard//Harris poll released this summer found that 55% of respondents wished Mr. Biden had left in place Trump-era policies that made it more difficult for illegal immigrants to enter the U.S.
Mr. Krikorian said those sorts of numbers could lead Mr. Biden to limit his tilt to the left on immigration as his party prepares for the 2022 midterm elections.
Mr. Biden‘s actions are bad enough, Mr. Krikorian said.
“He has de facto ended interior immigration enforcement,” Mr. Krikorian said. “At the border, he has essentially exempted minors and families from the immigration law. And the third thing I would point to is his proposed rule on asylum, which would radically expand asylum far beyond anything Congress envisioned and turn it into a kind of rubber stamp at the border for anyone who said the magic words of persecution.”