Despite the many claims, tweets, and hopes for 2021, there was no sudden return to “normal” when Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president last month. That's to be expected, of course. Biden's assumption of the presidency wasn't immediately going to change the fact that we’re still living through a time of extreme income inequality and a pandemic that’s taken more than half a million American lives. And, we’re still dealing with the very real ramifications of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the pervasive racism, inequity, and xenophobia that existed in America long before the words "Trump Administration" seemed like more than just a sick joke. In other words, “normal” — at least, the “normal” we should strive towards — does not exist yet.
But, even though things were never going to change overnight, the question now — 37 days into having a new president — must be: Is Joe Biden doing enough?
Certainly, Biden is doing a lot. On his first day in office, he was praised for many of his immediate actions, which aimed to undo some of the damage from the past four years. By the end of his first week, he signed over 30 executive orders to help combat racial inequality and discrimination, the climate crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. also joined the Paris Climate Accord and rejoined the World Health Organization. Biden also made several strides that impressed progressives, including his order for the Department of Justice to stop renewing contracts with private prisons and his movement to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.
But the president has also been the subject of some criticism, mostly for his hesitation to adequately address and change harmful immigration measures. While he restored the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and eliminated restrictions on asylum seekers, under his leadership, a migrant facility for children was reopened in Carrizo Springs, TX. The center first opened under Trump in 2019. “When I read they were opening again, I cried,” Rosey Abuabara, a San Antonio community activist, told the Washington Post. “I consoled myself with the fact that it was considered the Cadillac of [migrant child] centers, but I don’t have any hope that Biden is going to make it better.”
Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, said that the facility’s reopening was just a temporary measure intended to keep kids safe from COVID-19 before they can be transferred to “families or sponsors.” But there's growing concern around this action, and Biden's decision, especially considering he so often criticized Trump’s immigration policy and referred to his administration’s “overcrowded” detention centers as “a moral failing and a national shame.”
And then there’s Biden’s new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guidelines: Under his memorandum, ICE will specifically target immigrants who “pose a threat,” including immigrants convicted of felony and gang-related offenses. This is supposedly an improvement from Trump’s ruthless guidelines, but immigration advocates say it is a dangerous return to deportation policies from Barack Obama's presidency, and could easily encourage racial profiling and discrimination. “We believe that this memo only makes it easier for ICE to detain and deport immigrants, a clear back-track from President Joe Biden’s campaign promises and earlier Executive Orders,” the Texas-based immigration nonprofit RAICES wrote. Naureen Shah of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also called the guidelines a “disappointing step backward.”
Biden’s most dangerous failure, though, might be his hesitation to rescind the Title 42 expulsion, a Trump order that allowed U.S. Border Patrol to deny entry to immigrants and asylum seekers — and “expel” almost 400,000 people from the country — citing coronavirus-related concerns. The order has been criticized for violating numerous domestic laws and protections for refugees, and experts say that it’s a very thinly-veiled excuse for mass deportation, as asylum seekers don’t pose greater health risks than any other group of people. (And, as Ted Cruz recently reminded us, Republicans really aren’t all too concerned about the safety risks of traveling to and from Mexico during a pandemic.)
There are some measures that are out of Biden’s control. For instance, a Texas federal judge banned the enforcement of Biden’s attempted 100-day deportation ban. But overturning Title 42 should be a priority. “Each day that Biden fails to rescind the use of Title 42 for pretextual border enforcement means more families expelled to the dangerous situations from which they fled,” Andrea Meza, an attorney with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, told CBS News. White House officials have said that the Biden administration needs time to implement “humane” asylum processing systems.
But that’s the recurring problem: Time is something we don’t necessarily have, when hundreds of people are getting deported, thousands of Americans are dying of COVID-19, and millions are in need of the stimulus checks we were promised. And although Biden certainly can’t fix all of America’s problems in one month, he’s dragged his feet on many pressing issues — including the fact that 44.7 million Americans have often crippling student loan debt.
“President Biden has the legal authority to cancel billions in student debt with the stroke of a pen and he must meet the moment by using that authority, which would not only set us on a path to an equitable recovery, but would also help reduce the racial wealth gap,” Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley said.
Pressley, along with several other Representatives, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have called on Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in loan debt immediately. Biden has promised to cancel $10,000, but argued in a recent Town Hall that he would not “forgive the debt, the billions of dollars of debt, for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.” The idea that Americans struggling with exorbitant debt are all Ivy League graduates is a common Republican talking point, and a false one. According to CNBC, just 0.3% of federal student borrowers attended Ivy League schools, and 49% graduated from public universities.
Could Biden be doing more? In many ways, yes. He has the power to cancel student debt; he has the power to rescind Title 42. But it is worth acknowledging that Biden inherited problems Trump and Obama did not, and not just because of the unprecedented crises we’re facing right now. There was an unnecessarily, unusually rough transition of power, between Trump’s outright refusal to concede, refusal to give Biden access to intelligence briefings, and refusal to stop an attempted coup on the U.S. Capitol weeks before Biden’s inauguration.
“Incoming administration officials always want to fix policies they think are broken,” John Bellinger, a former legal adviser from George W. Bush’s National Council, told the New York Times. Along with other Republican security experts, Bellinger penned a letter urging Trump to concede in November. “But it is important for them to know what the outgoing administration was already doing and why problems that may look easy to fix from the outside may not be quite so easy.”
For example, Trump refused to share his vaccine distribution plan with Biden, which concerned both Biden’s advisers and health experts. After Biden’s inauguration, it became clear that Trump actually had no vaccine distribution plan to share in the first place.
Biden has succeeded at overturning some of Trump’s most dangerous policies, but especially in the age of COVID, we need to do more than just undo Trump’s damage. When it comes to immigration, we don’t just need something better than Obama’s guidelines and kinder than Trump’s xenophobia: As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, we need to reimagine our current carceral, unethical system altogether. And Biden has the chance to create — and should aim for — a legacy that’s better than “better than Trump.” Because in 2021, America needs more than just an incremental improvement — we need real change.