How Confronting The Past Can Change Our Future

How Confronting The Past Can Change Our Future by Taher Kameli

Written by Taher Kameli

On Wednesday, January 20, 2021,  the U. S. witness the change when former Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. It was the culmination of a vicious presidential campaign that effectively served as a referendum on the performance of Donald Trump.[1] A campaign that saw Trump’s most fervent supporters come out in record numbers to keep him in the White House, as well as new voters too.[2]


After, a volatile election the result was not even known for almost a week before Biden was found to have crossed the threshold of both popular and electoral votes to become the President-elect.[3] And even with this declared victory, then-President Trump refused to concede the election, demanding recounts, threatening legal action, and alleging voter fraud.[4]


This initiated a protracted dispute about the election results both in the government and in the court of public opinion as to whether or not the election was “stolen,” culminating in a dramatic set of protests at the U.S. Capitol that saw supporters of the incumbent President storm the building and its offices.[5] Many analysts and observers saw the storming of the Capitol as an insurrection.[6] Yet in spite of that, Joe Biden was confirmed by Congress soon after and the transition took place as planned on January 20, 2021.[7]


The new administration promised to heal divisions in the country and take firm action on issues that had been mishandled by the Trump administration, as well as fight the previous administration’s controversial policies restricting immigration and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement.[1]


Specifically, with regards to immigration, the Biden administration promised to push forward legislation to give 11 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.[2] Under the proposal, “current recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals…and others in temporary programs that were set up to shield some undocumented immigrants from deportation would be allowed to immediately apply for permanent legal residency.”[3] Not to mention restore and expand programs for refugees and asylum seekers, contravening earlier policy under President Trump.[4]


Additionally, President Biden was able to reverse Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants from particular countries, attacking another key aspect of the xenophobic legacy of the last president.[5] And most significantly for working immigrants and non-residents, the new President also seeks to rescind the strict limits on legal immigration of foreign workers to the United States.[6] Already, President Biden has put all of President Trump’s recently published modifications to the H-1B visa rules on hold, pending review.[7]


As a result, it is no wonder that many see the arrival of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as the beginning of a return to what are felt to be America’s ideals and a rejection of the xenophobia and nepotism of the Trump administration, and the divisions that it arguably created in American society.


Certainly, the fact that President Biden has taken these key radical measures to undo at least some of the damage Trump’s immigration policy wrecked on millions of individuals, should be cause for optimism for those working with immigrants to secure their legal and social rights in a favorable environment. The inauguration poem composed by the US youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman best captures the sense of hope to become better[8] that many people probably feel is possible with President Trump out of the way.


However, if there is one thing advocates for immigrants should have learned from the past 20+ years, it is that Trump’s xenophobic platform was inherited from an inherent exclusivist and punishing immigration regime that has defined immigration policy for more than two decades.[1] Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama had all played important roles in militarizing the US-Mexico border over concerns about undocumented immigrants crossing the border illegally. Including constructing hundreds of miles of a wall, as well as quintupling the size of the Border Patrol and creating the system by which undocumented arrivals are detained for deportation.[2]


During, the Obama Presidency itself, immigrant refugees from Central America were detained en masse to deter other potential immigrants like them from crossing the border.[3] The inhumane conditions in which these asylum seekers were kept had shocked observers.[4] And while President Obama may not have specifically targeted undocumented children to be detained in facilities on the scale practiced by the Trump administration, the phenomena nevertheless occurred in the same conditions, albeit temporarily and without Trump’s vulgar rhetoric.[5]


Indeed, the record numbers of immigrants deported by the Obama administration led to President Obama being nicknamed the “Deporter in Chief.”[6] Prior to the Obama administration, the Clinton administration foreshadowed the Trump administration’s deportation policies by signing the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996.  Which stripped many asylum seekers of their right to due process and utilized local law enforcement agencies to uphold immigration laws.[7]


And this itself followed an earlier problematic history extending to the racist national immigrant quotas of the 1920s, the large scale deportations of Mexican workers to “protect American workers” during the Depression by President Hoover, to “Operation Wetback” (forcing “hundreds of thousands of low-paid farm workers to leave the country”) to the low approval rates of Central American asylum seekers fleeing violence (which again the US was involved in) under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.[1]With regards to Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, Trump’s infamous Muslim ban also had predecessors in the previous administrations.


However, the Obama administration signed the Visa Waiver Improvement Program and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, which restricted and monitored immigration from countries deemed “areas of concern” by the government, such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia.[2] This policy was attacked by rights groups like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee as “blatant profiling on its face” and which affected even western-based journalists such as the BBC’s Rana Rahimpour because of her having been born in Iran.[3]


Furthermore, many anti-Muslim policies used by the Trump administration to crack down on Muslim immigrants were created by the Obama administration, including FBI’s placing of Muslim men on no-fly lists without justification, three of which successfully challenged the policy at the Supreme Court who decided the decision after Obama left office.[4]


There was also the Countering Violent Extremism program set up by the Obama administration in 2011 which organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations attacked for profiling American Muslims as susceptible to extremist indoctrination.[5] That is not to mention the mass surveillance of Muslim communities (among others) that occurred under the Obama administration.[6] Or the Bush-era registry of people from particular problem countries that were disproportionately Muslim used to profile individuals based on their identity, which President Trump sought to set up on a more explicit basis.[7]


It is easy to say, as people like Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman do, that we are an imperfect nation that yet has amazing ideals that we must continually strive for to give hope and empowerment to all, that “being American is more than a pride that we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”[1] It is very easy to say that America was always great and that it was Donald Trump who destroyed it with his lies, his racism, and misogyny. It is easy to say we are a nation of immigrants that has always taken in people from around the world seeking the ideals of the American dream.


Previous presidents like Obama, Bush, Clinton, and others did not indulge in the explicit racism of earlier US presidents yet they perpetuated a system of exclusion and regulation to defend American exceptionalism, something which has only served to bolster Trump’s agenda during the four tumultuous years he served as president.


Therefore, we can challenge Trump’s deceptive claims about immigrants and refugees all that we want to. But what we cannot do is challenge deception with self-deception. Nothing demonstrates the latter better than ignoring how much Trump’s legacy continued and exacerbated the ugliest aspects of this nation’s laws, policies, and history. This legacy can easily rear its head again even without Trump’s divisive rhetoric, under a seemingly “reasonable” professional administration if it is permitted to continue with the status quo without being held accountable.


This does not detract from the fact that the end of the Trump administration is a positive development for immigrants and those working on their behalf. It represents an opportunity to challenge the hardline policies of the Trump administration that kept people out and make use of potentially new policies to help immigrants achieve their aspirations in this country.


Yet unless if we confront the inhumane immigration system that has defined this country since, perhaps, the very beginning (when the US restricted immigration to “free white person[s]”[2]), we will never be able to secure the change we need to advance the rights of immigrants to come here and thrive without being shamed or targeted for who they are or where they come from. Complacency is not an option.


Already, while the Biden administration seems to roll back the more outrageous aspects of Trump’s hardline immigration policies, it also seeks to protect American workers in the midst of the pandemic, and given the pressure of the latter, it may very well be that President Biden may keep some restrictions on a visa for much needed foreign workers.[1]


Indeed, President Biden’s proposed US Citizenship Act of 2021 still incentivizes higher wages for H-1B workers to prevent the displacement of American workers.[2] The Biden Presidency cannot be said to provide the “salvation” attributed to it by relieved voters. Especially given President Biden’s long history working with the very system that perpetuated many of the deep flaws of the US immigration system.



[1] Samuels, Brett, Trump Extends Visa Restrictions Through March, The Hill (Dec. 31, 2020) available at

[2] Maurer, Roy, President Biden’s Immigration Plan Legalizes Millions of Undocumented Workers, SHRM  (Jan. 20, 2021) available at

[1] Read: Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, CNN (Upd. Jan. 20, 2021, 10:22 PM ET) available at

[2] Glass, Andrew, U.S. Enacts First Immigration Law, March 26, 1790, Politico (Mar. 26, 2012, 4:51 AM EDT)

[1] Id.

[2] Sainato, Michael, Obama Administration Helped Make Possible Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban, Observer (Jan. 30, 2017, 11:30 AM) available at

[3] Id.

[4] Obeidallah, Dean, Anti-Muslim Policies Forged Under Obama Flourished Under Trump. What Will Happen Under Biden?, MSNBC (Dec. 12, 2020, 5:00 AM CST) available at

[5] Id.

[6] Meinrath, Sascha, Opinion: Obama’s Surveillance Legacy, C.S. Monitor (Jan. 18, 2017, available at

[7] Lind, Dara, Donald Trump’s Proposed “Muslim Registry,” Explained, Vox (Nov. 16, 2016, 11:40 AM EST) available at

[1] Denvir, Daniel, The Roots of Trump’s Immigration Barbarity, Jacobin (Jun. 20, 2018) available at

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. (Lawyers who had to go out to a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico in order to see their clients found a sight of women and children together, malnourished and sick with diseases like pneumonia, scabies and lice.) (citing Hylton, Will S., The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps, N.Y. Times Mag. (Feb. 4, 2015) available at

[5] Id.

[6] Hauslohner, Abigail, The Trump Administration’s Immigration Jails are Packed, But Deportations are Lower than in Obama Era,” Wash. Post (Nov. 17, 2019, 5:09 PM CST) available at

[7] Fontes, Anthony W., The Long, Bipartisan History of Dealing with Immigrants Harshly, Chicago Reporter (Jul. 11, 2019) available at

[1] Id.

[2] Shear, Michael D., Biden to Announce Broad Plan to Reverse Trump Immigration Policies, N.Y. Times (Upd. Jan. 27, 2021) available at

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Lajaverdi, Nazita, Oskooli, Kassra AR, and Collingwood, Loren, Biden Reverses Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban.’ Americans Support the Decision, Wash. Post (Jan. 27, 2021, 5:00 AM CST) available at

[6] Montoya-Galvez, Camilo, Biden to Rescind Trump’s Pandemic-Era Limits on Immigrant and Work Visas, Top Adviser Says, CBS News (Jan. 29, 2021, 6:39 AM) available at

[7] Relief to Techies: Biden Puts Trump H-1B Rule to Hold, The Hindu (Business Line) (upd. Jan. 21, 2021) available at

[8] Read: Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, CNN (Upd. Jan. 20, 2021, 10:22 PM ET) available at

[1] Lemire, Jonathan, Miller, Zeke, Weissert, Will, Biden Defeats Trump for White House, says “Time to Heal”, Assoc. Press (Nov. 7, 2020) available at

[2] Riccardi, Nicholas, Referendum on Trump Shatters Turnout Records, Assoc Press (Nov. 9, 2020) available at

[3] Lemire, Jonathan, Miller, Zeke, Weissert, Will, Biden Defeats Trump for White House, says “Time to Heal”, Assoc. Press (Nov. 7, 2020) available at

[4] Id.

[5] Gregorian, Dareh, Gibson, Ginger, Kapur, Sahil and Helsel, Phil, Congress Confirms Biden’s Win After Pro-Trump Mob’s Assault on Capitol, NBC (upd. Jan. 7, 2021, 8:52 AM CST) available at

[6] Forde, Kaelyn, Partisan News Thrived Under Trump. Can Biden Bridge the Divide?, al Jazeera (Jan. 29, 2021) available at

[7] Baker, Peter, Biden Inaugurated as 46th President Amid a Cascade of Crises, N.Y. Times (Upd. Jan. 26, 2021) available at

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