On Sunday, President-elect Joe Biden announced that he will unveil an immigration bill — which includes an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — on Day One of his administration. The proposed bill includes an option for undocumented agricultural workers, people under temporary protective status, and immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children to qualify more immediately for green cards if they are working, are in school, or meet other requirements.
Immigrant people and allies welcomed news of the drastic change from Trump administration policies.
José Arnulfo Cabrera, director of education and advocacy for migration at Ignatian Solidarity Network, said that the administration’s ambition is promising.
Cabrera, who immigrated to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico, when he was 4 years old, was a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient. He was a college student at the time of Trump's election and feared that he would be kicked out of the country before he was able to complete his course work.
“To say that President Trump took our immigration process and flipped it upside down is an understatement,” Cabrera told Sojourners. “Our immigration system was not perfect to begin with, but this administration has made it a mess.”
Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda
Indeed, immigration policy under the Trump administration changed drastically; according to the Pew Research Center, southwest border apprehensions increased to the highest annual level in 12 years in fiscal year 2019. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests rose 30 percent in 2017 after Trump took office; arrests rose 11 percent in 2018.
Migration Policy Institute (MPI) reports that the administration increased border patrol within the U.S. and began 24-hour surveillance operations around the homes and workplaces of unauthorized immigrants.
As of 2019, there was a backlog of more than 1 million cases in the immigration court system, even though the pace of adjudications had increased: Between 2018 and 2019, the total number of cases adjudicated rose 42 percent, “to the point of raising concerns about due process implications,” MPI’s report reads.
Applications for green cards also decreased, according to the report. The Trump administration attempted to end DACA. He declared a national emergency to access $3.6 billion from military construction projects and transferred an additional $3.8 billion in Defense Department funds to build a border wall.
The administration blocked the entry of certain nationals from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen and, in 2020, blocked certain nationals from Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.
“Trump used every opportunity he could to try and restrict immigration,” said Brandon Lee, spokesperson for Illinois Coalition Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Through attempts to end programs like DACA and Temporary Protected Status, changing federal rules to make citizenship more difficult, increasing fees, and trying to intimidate people from Census participation, “it seems like every step of the way the Trump administration was trying to do everything they could to implement an anti-immigrant agenda,” Lee told Sojourners.
Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said that the Trump administration turned away people at the border without even processing their immigration paperwork.
“This administration, the way I observed it, [was] out to get everybody,” Pimentel told Sojourners. “They categorized immigrants as criminals and sent them back. This administration has politicized the whole immigration reality 100 percent.”
Pimentel said that all immigrants should be offered “a fair opportunity” upon arriving here.
“I don’t think we need to be cruel to follow the law, to try to determine if a person is fearing for their lives,” Pimentel said. “We don’t have to push aside our humanity in doing our jobs.”
The Biden administration has promised change. In addition to their eight-year path to citizenship announcement, Biden’s website lists priorities for the first 100 days in office, including:
- reversing the Trump administration’s family separation policies,
- sending humanitarian assistance to the border and fostering public-private initiatives,
- ending prolonged detention and reinvesting in a case management program,
- ending the national emergency that funded wall building,
- rescinding travel and refugee bans,
- ordering a review of TPS,
- holding ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel accountable for inhumane treatment, and
- restoring the naturalization process for green card holders.
That’s in addition to a milieu of other agenda items. It’s a lot to do in 100 days, especially given a pandemic and social unrest. Giovana Oaxaca, program director for migration policy at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said she is pleased that creating a pathway to citizenship is seemingly a top priority for the Biden administration.
“I really agree with making sure that people who have been on the frontlines [during COVID-19] are able to apply for some sort of permanent status and gain a pathway to citizenship, as they have put everything on the line to provide for their families, for this country,” Oaxaca said. “... This new administration will really be a test to see how much we can accomplish so that we don’t have to live decision-to-decision, day-to-day like this again.”
As an immigrant and DACA recipient, Oaxaca said she believes that a shorter path to citizenship, an emphasis on family unity, and a pathway to citizenship for family members who had to stand in for essential workers who died or fell ill during COVID-19 are essential.
Addressing root causes
But in addition to implementing legislation, Oaxaca and Cabrera also said it behooves the Biden administration to understand the root causes of migration.
“You can give 11 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, and assure that the pathway is affordable for them, but you’re never going to stop the flow of immigrants if you don’t understand why they’re coming,” Cabrera said. “The U.S. government for once needs to accept that they were part of the many wrongdoings of the root causes of immigration.”
Cabrera said his family came to this country after NAFTA resulted in a major loss of economic opportunity in rural Mexico.
“It made it increasingly impossible for farmers and small businesses to survive,” Cabrera said. “By the time I came around, my family had nothing.”
He now calls on Biden to understand that and claim accountability, and then denounce future legislation that creates “push factors” for immigration to the U.S.
Between resisting future harmful legislation, expediting citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, and counteracting the hate stoked by the current administration, Biden has a big job ahead of him. The first step, according to Kennji Kizuka, senior researcher at Human Rights First, is for Biden’s administration to actually unroll a detailed immigration plan on the first day of Biden’s presidency, as the administration has promised.
Kizuka said that he’s waiting to see if Biden will, in fact, live up to his word.
“We remain hopeful, and we’re staying vigilant,” Kizuka said. “The devil is in the details.”
Editor's note: This article was updated on Jan. 21, 2021 at 2:53 p.m. to clarify Giovana Oaxaca's remarks. An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied she was referencing the Reuniting Families Act.