- Jean Guerreroaward-winning investigative journalist and author.
President Joe Biden has placed immigration at the center of his ambitious agenda, signing several executive orders reversing Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and promising a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. But Biden is not only navigating the destructive legacy of his immediate predecessor, but also that of the Obama administration when he was vice president, which oversaw 3 million deportations. “These are people who had families, jobs and homes in the United States,” says investigative journalist Jean Guerrero. “What he needs is not just to reverse Trump’s policies and go back to Obama-era policies. He needs to actually repair the harm that was done when he was vice president.” Guerrero also urges Biden not to carve out exceptions that exclude immigrants with criminal records, including members of her own family.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
This week, immigrant rights activists launched a new campaign called #WeAreHome to push President Biden and Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill to create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Biden included the pathway to citizenship in a proposal he announced on his first day in office last week, along with six executive orders dealing with immigration. Politico now reports Congress may break the proposal into parts.
Biden also ordered a pause on all U.S.-Mexico border wall construction, but billions of dollars of unfinished work remains under contract with the federal government. Activists in over a dozen U.S. cities held a day of action Sunday urging him to take further steps to stop the construction.
Meanwhile, Biden’s 100-day deportation pause took effect Friday, and it’s facing a challenge from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who argues an agreement the Trump administration signed in its final weeks with Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas entitles them to a 180-day consultation period. Since Trump left office last week, his former senior adviser on immigration, Stephen Miller, has emerged as a right-wing media personality. He went on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle Friday to attack Biden’s immigration plan.
STEPHEN MILLER: If you read the text of this order, it is breathtaking and mind-boggling in its scope. It halts all deportations — all deportations — for a hundred days, including the most hardened criminals living in the United States. That means child molesters, sex offenders, drug dealers, gang members, MS-13, all shielded from removal. This is the priority of our new president?
AMY GOODMAN: Later this week, President Biden is expected to issue another executive order to restore asylum protections and set up a task force to reunify families separated at the border.
For more on all of this, we’re joined by Jean Guerrero, the investigative journalist who profiles Miller in her book Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda. She just published an op-ed this past weekend in The New York Times that’s headlined “3 Million People Were Deported Under Obama. What Will Biden Do About It?”
Jean Guerrero, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, talk about the executive orders that Biden is taking and what you want to see him do.
JEAN GUERRERO: Right. So, so far we’ve seen him reverse a lot of the actions that Trump took — you know, ending the Muslim ban, reviving DACA and stopping the border wall construction. But in many ways, his plan sort of goes back to policies and approaches that we saw under the Obama-Biden administration. He talks about prioritizing serious criminals for deportation and maintaining family unity. This is something that we saw Obama profess that he was doing. He talked about targeting “felons, not families.”
But, as you mentioned, under the Obama administration, we saw more than 3 million people deported. These are people who had families, jobs and homes in the United States, and a majority of these people were in fact guilty of only immigration offenses — you know, crossing the border illegally. These were not in fact serious criminals.
So, if Biden merely reverts to the policies of the Obama administration, he’s really ignoring the lessons of that era, in which we learned that criminalizing certain immigrants or criminalizing immigration overall ends up fracturing and financially devastating immigrant communities as a whole.
And so, I argue that if Biden is serious about a more humane approach on immigration, what he needs is not just to reverse Trump’s policies and go back to Obama-era policies. He needs to actually repair the harm that was done when he was vice president. And that is going to entail providing a pathway to reunification for a lot of these families that were fractured and separated by the mass deportations.
He is promising to do this for the families that were separated at the border under Trump. Those separations caused a lot of outrage in America and created a sort of amnesia for what had happened under Obama. And I believe he needs to provide the same sort of pathway to reunification for some of these families, as well as the mental health services that he is promising for the trauma that was caused to the Trump-separated families. The American Psychological Association says that the Obama mass deportations caused serious psychological harm to children, in the same way that the Trump family separations did. And I think that Biden really needs to reckon with that. You know, he really needs to reckon with the mistakes that were made when he was vice president.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jean Guerrero, I wanted to ask you about the — Biden has said that he has a plan that would establish a $4 billion program to assist El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in reducing the poverty, crime and conditions that drive people to the U.S. But now, I haven’t done the exact math, but I’m pretty sure that $4 billion doesn’t even compare to the amount of money the United States, in real dollars, gave to the Central American governments during the civil wars back in the '80s in military aid. Do you think that that's a sufficient amount to be able to address some of the deep problems that exist that drive people to come to the United States?
JEAN GUERRERO: No, it’s certainly not enough, and especially if there’s not accountability and transparency in how that money is spent. I think that so far, whenever there are conversations about providing aid to Central America, there’s this huge gaping hole in the conversations coming out of Washington, D.C., which is: What about all of the — you know, as you were saying, the military aid that was provided over the past few decades that contributed in a major way to the violence that is sending people north seeking refuge in the United States? And not only that, but also what about the fact that a majority of weapons that are seized at crime scenes in Mexico and other parts of Latin America come from the United States? And there’s almost no conversation currently happening about the smuggling of weapons that contributes to the violence in Central America. And I think that that’s something that Biden also needs to do something about.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of this whole issue of that both — a lot of Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to supposedly deport those who are undocumented or even permanent residents who are felons or criminals. And you write about in your book about your bisabuela — no, in a recent article, “No Country for Brown Sinners,” you wrote, quote, that your bisabuela was “one of the bad ones — not one of the model Mexicans you’re supposed to care about, the ones whose stories some people cherry-pick to tug at your heartstrings.” What about this issue of people making mistakes, whether they’re citizens or undocumented or permanent residents here in the United States?
JEAN GUERRERO: Right. So this is very important, because over the decades we have had these very violent immigration policies and this militarization of the border based around the idea of the “bad hombre.” You know, for Obama, it was, quote-unquote, “felons, not families.” For Trump, it was — you know, he was going after alleged criminals and rapists and “bad hombres,” not the “good people” that occasionally come across, according to him. So, this story of the “bad hombre” has been weaponized over the decades to punish entire immigrant communities. By contrasting the, quote-unquote, “bad hombre” with the, quote, “good” immigrants, who work unnaturally hard and never break any rules, essentially what politicians are doing is they’re reducing immigrant lives to caricatures who can be exploited and expelled from the country. And so I think it’s very important that we be very careful about the narratives that are being used, both in the media as well as by politicians.
I personally come from a lineage of so-called what would be considered, quote-unquote, “bad hombres.” You know, my father is an immigrant from Mexico who struggled with substance abuse, which is the subject of my first book, Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir. And so, for me, this is personal. My father is the type of nonwhite person who is devalued and dehumanized by immigration narratives and policies, whether it’s Trump’s “bad hombres” or Obama’s, quote-unquote, “felons, not families.”
And this is something that I noticed contributed to the apathy of people in regards to Obama’s mass deportations. People thought, “Oh, well these are just — these are bad guys.” You know, most of these were men, and people just kind of shrugged that they didn’t have to be in the country. But I spoke to a lot of these people. I documented their skeletons in the border desert after they died trying to be reunited with children in the United States. These are men whose only crime was being in the United States illegally, having looked for a better life for their families.
And so, I think that Biden needs to be very careful about the narratives that he’s using. Right now he’s sort of falling into that same trap, where he’s saying, “You know, my immigration policy is about prioritizing serious criminals.” But what that does is it sort of like marries the concept of immigration in the public imagination with the concept of criminality. And that is something that we, as a country, really need to walk away from, because it contributes to a lot of the hatred and the resurgence of white supremacy that I document in my book Hatemonger, where people just begin to associate people who come here — whether they are refugees or asylum seekers or immigrants, they associate them with criminality. And that’s simply not the case. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born people, according to practically every study that has been done on this issue.
AMY GOODMAN: Jean, you write in your New York Times op-ed about how an immigrant from Guatemala, Lucía Quiej, attended the 2016 Democratic presidential primary debate with her five children, who had not seen their father since he was deported three years earlier under President Obama. She asked the candidates about their position on deportations and family reunification. This is what she said.
LUCÍA QUIEJ: [translated] I want to ask you a question. I have a deep pain. Me and my children have a deep pain because my children’s father was deported for not having a license. He was a hard-working man. What can you do to stop the deportations and reunite the families?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I will do everything that I can to unite your family, your children.
HILLARY CLINTON: And I will do everything I can to pass laws that would bring families back together.
AMY GOODMAN: Jean Guerrero, you write in your New York Times op-ed, “Today, the meaning of 'separated families' has narrowed, with Biden’s reunification task force focused on those separated by Trump. Lucía’s family has been erased.” Talk more about this and what needs to be done.
JEAN GUERRERO: Exactly. You know, when I was reporting on these mass deportations, there really wasn’t a lot of outrage in America. And I remember wondering what it was going to take to get Americans to object to the violence of our immigration policies. And we saw the outrage come about during the Trump administration, when we had the “zero tolerance” policy and this policy of separating asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Obama separated families in the interior, families with roots, families with homes and jobs and children in the United States. So the profile of the victims was different.
And what it made me realize is that most Americans care very deeply about inhumane immigration policies, but they care mostly when it involves victims that they see as innocent or as exceptional. So, under the Trump administration, it was very hard for people to actually perceive the families that were victims of immigration policies as “bad hombres,” because we were seeing that the profile of these people, mostly people — mothers and children coming from Central America and seeking refuge, fleeing death threats and extreme violence at home.
And so, it’s sort of this double standard that we have. You know, in the United States, we’re conditioned to delight in white male misbehavior in our culture. Meanwhile, we’re conditioned to see flawed Brown or Black men as, quote, “animals” or, quote, “monsters” or, quote, “thugs” or invaders. So this demonization of flawed nonwhite men contrasts with our cultural fetish for white male antiheroes, which you see in our movies like American Psycho or TV shows like Breaking Bad. And I argue in my op-ed that until our narratives, our national narratives, afford immigrants, Brown and Black immigrants, the same license to err as white men, they will be dehumanized by our institutions.
You know, Stephen Miller, who I profiled in my book Hatemonger, grew up idolizing white antiheroes like Martin Scorsese’s mobsters and John Wayne’s cowboys, meanwhile reading about immigrants described as monsters and beasts in white supremacist novels. So, his white nationalist agenda is the natural outcome of a culture that glorifies bad white man and dehumanizes Brown and Black men. And so, I think that that double standard is in play here when you see — when I talk about the importance of Biden not merely reverting to Obama-era policies of saying that he’s going to prioritize serious criminals, because, again, that just marries the concept of immigration and committing minor immigration offenses with some kind of national security threat, which it is not.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jean, the long-term solution clearly is a new comprehensive immigration reform law. And at least Biden has put forth his plan that would include a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented within eight years. That’s considerably better than back in 2014 when they were talking about 10 years, and that didn’t get anywhere — I mean, 13 years. And before that, in 2006, they were talking about 10 years. What are the prospects that you see right now for that being able to be passed in Congress, especially given the reality that once those 11 million are able to become not only permanent residents, but citizens, politics in this country is going to decisively change? So, I’m wondering your sense of how many Republicans there would be right now in Congress to be able to agree to pass immigration reform?
JEAN GUERRERO: Well, I think that there is going to be very little Republican support for this bill, but it is a possibility that we’ll see some Republicans revert to the conversations that were being had in 2013 and 2014, when they were talking about the importance of courting the Latino vote and embracing the Latino vote and diversifying the Republican Party and campaigning in communities of color in ways that they never had before. These are conversations that the Republican Party was having about the need to reform itself several years ago, and completely took a 180 when Trump and Stephen Miller came into power and decided to double down on courting the white working class, particularly the white male working class. And so, I do think we may see a return to those conversations.
And I think this is an extremely significant bill. You know, it would provide these 11 million undocumented people, who contribute economically and in so many other ways to this country, with a pathway to citizenship if they pass a background check and if they’ve paid taxes.
One way that I think that it could go a lot farther than what has so far been proposed is, you know, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, she is planning to introduce this resolution that completely rejects the quid pro quo framing of previous immigration reform efforts. So, instead of offering protections in exchange for increased militarization, it completely rejects that, and it says we need to dismantle the deportation machine completely and completely decriminalize immigration. Instead of deporting everyone here who is here illegally or who has committed a minor offense like driving without a license, like Lucía Quiej’s husband, there will be scalable civil consequences. So, for example, you may have to pay a fine for committing an immigration offense. You may have to do community service. And it also provides a pathway to reunification for any families that have been separated by the U.S. government, regardless of who separated them, because this resolution is driven by a respect for human rights rather than political considerations. And I think that’s one way in which the Biden administration can go a lot farther.
AMY GOODMAN: So much more to talk about, but we’re going to have to have you back, Jean. Thanks so much for being with us, Jean Guerrero, investigative journalist, author of Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda. And we’ll link to your piece in The New York Times, “3 Million People Were Deported Under Obama. What Will Biden Do About It?”
Next up, the inequality virus. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Freedom for Some” by South African musician, anti-apartheid icon, Jonas Gwangwa. He died over the weekend at the age of 83.