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Nothing Exemplified Trump Thuggery Like Immigration. Ergo, It's Biden's First Fix

A Central American boy separated from his asylum-seeking parents wanders a shelter in San Diego in 2018.
Gregory Bull
TRAUMATIC IMPACT A Central American boy separated from his asylum-seeking parents wanders a shelter in San Diego in 2018.

COMMENTARY Of all President Biden's first reversals of President Trump's policies, a more humane – and sensical – immigration agenda is the most important.

Donald Trump did do some good things as President, like pushing for a swift COVID-19 vaccine. But he did so much to erase so much of any good he did as President because, as he made terrifyingly clear this month, at his core he’s a thug. The thug who MAGA nation hoped would stop America from entering a more racially, religiously and socially diverse 21st century – which, let’s be real, is what this five-year-long White grievance convulsion was mostly about.

And nothing so thuggishly exemplified that retro-crusade than Trump’s anti-immigration regime – the bigoted demonization of immigrants, but especially the monstrous separation of thousands of undocumented migrant families seeking asylum from hellish places like Central America’s Northern Triangle.

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Border control doesn't mean border criminality – but a Justice Department inspector general reportreleased last week confirms just how thuggish Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy was. It rebukes his administration’s “single-minded focus” on its half-baked family separation scheme “at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact.”

The impact was in many cases as awful as the traumas those families had fled in gang-ravaged countries like Honduras. One Honduran father, reunited with his family here in Miami after more than a year of separation, told me U.S. immigration agents wrenched his 4-year-old son from his arms at a border detention center. It left the boy so psychologically scarred he won’t go anywhere alone with his dad now; he steps out with him only if his mother comes along.

READ MORE: America Won't Solve Immigration by Loathing Latin Americans. Ask the Irish.

Coincidentally last week, a new migrant caravan fled Honduras for the U.S. It may well be halted by Guatemalan or Mexican authorities before it reaches America. Either way, it’s a reminder of two critical things:

First, that Trump’s thuggery didn’t end the migrant drift because it didn’t end the migrant desperation. (Last week U.S. federal prosecutors underscored that Central American despair when they alleged that Honduras’ own thug-in-chief, President Juan Orlando Hernández, helped his country’s homicidal narco-gangs traffic cocaine.)

Second, that among Joe Biden’s first actions as President this week, arguably the most important are immigration measures reclaiming not just American decency but Yankee common sense.

Ending Trump's border brutality is arguably the most powerful way Biden can reclaim not only American decency but Yankee common sense.

Immigration reform has been a political third rail in 21st-century Washington – as Biden found out when he was Vice President under President Obama. But as if to steer the issue in a more humane direction again, Biden’s already sent a bill to create an eight-year path to citizenship for millions of undocumented migrants, many of whom do the low-wage labor that helps keep the U.S. economy afloat.


Just as pivotal, and maybe more, is his proposal for a four-year, $4 billion project that confronts illegal immigration not at the border but at its source – in this case in Honduras and the Northern Triangle’s two other cauldrons, Guatemala and El Salvador.

It’s a larger reboot of his Obama-era initiative aimed at keeping Central Americans at home by addressing the nightmarish poverty and security issues that force them north. I can attest that it was beginning to work – because I watched it beginning to work in 2015in Honduran cities like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, especially its economic opportunity and community policing components.

Then Vice President Joe Biden in Guatemala in 2015
Moises Castillo
Then Vice President Joe Biden in Guatemala in 2015

Trump of course did his utmost to gut the program, because solving illegal immigration at its source didn’t whip his nativist base into the gleeful frenzy that tearing apart parents and children at the border did. He also turned a blind eye to corrupt anti-democrats like Honduras’ Hernández, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, as long as they agreed to turn their countries into migrant holding pens for him.

That will likely change with Biden’s smart pick of Ambassador Roberta Jacobson for the new post of southern border czar. She’ll manage security issues with Mexico and Central America as well as reforms to the U.S.’s wrecked asylum system.

Biden’s bill is bold, but I also wish it was more practical. I'd welcome an innovative guest-worker visa program that acknowledges the necessity of migrant labor in the U.S. but makes its flow more legal and less chaotic – and also less a target for demagogues promising border walls.

But for now I’ll settle for a policy that doesn’t scar 4-year-old kids.

One that wasn’t devised by a thug.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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