It’s hard to avoid hyperbole when considering the Donald Trump presidency. Years from now, it may be possible to look back at this period of time and construct a measured understanding of what happened and what it meant in the context of neoliberal capitalism’s transition to whatever else it may become, but the drama of the current moment — a collision of public health, economic, and political crises — makes it difficult to write with anything other than panic and lamentation. This is true for almost every major issue on the political horizon, but it can feel especially so for immigration, which the Trump administration named as a central cause of all these crises. Immigrants were carriers of pestilence who, in their industriousness, stole jobs from native-born Americans and, in their sloth, siphoned resources from the social safety net — all while hijacking American democracy with their fraudulent votes. Consequently, the solution offered for these problems has targeted immigrants or immigration policy, which, in turn, required the Left to focus its political energies on immigration in defense.
The whole situation has been made more complicated by the reality that COVID-19 does present legitimate public health justifications for the restriction of human movement. The exigencies of public health forced the machinery of international migration — from airplanes and buses to consular bureaucracies — to a halt, while at the same time catalyzing the kind of acute economic crisis that exacerbates populist nativism under even the best circumstances. The situation is a holy mess, and it can be difficult to imagine what will happen to immigration policy now. How do we make sense of what has happened? How does the Left orient itself with regard to immigration under these conditions? How many of these changes represent foundational shifts in the American political economy that will impose long-term constraints on what the Left can hope to achieve? And what of the incoming Joe Biden administration, the tenuous Democratic majorities in Congress? Can any progress be made in immigrants’ rights in the next four years?