President Joe Biden needn’t look far for praise, criticism and advice for his handling of the immigration issue on the one-year mark of his inauguration — a milestone immigration advocates and religious leaders are using to spur more action to undo the damage inflicted during the Trump-era war on immigrants and refugees.
The days leading up to the anniversary saw a flurry of public appeals from immigrant rights and faith-based groups lauding Biden for the progress his administration has made in the past 12 months but also urging a more determined effort to eliminate some of the policies of his predecessor, including the highly controversial Title 42 and Migrant Protection Protocols.
“Unwinding the previous administration’s restrictions and building something better was never going to be easy,” said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum. “To put the country on track to creating better, more humane processes for those fleeing violence and persecution, President Biden must prioritize vulnerable migrants, foster a political consensus in favor of needed reforms and chart a clear course on protecting the vulnerable.”
The Forum released a paper Jan. 18 extolling the White House for the progress it’s made on immigration during year one of Biden’s term.
The administration, according to the paper, “can already count some real immigration policy achievements, including ending Trump-era immigration bans, implementing new enforcement priorities that focus on threats to public safety, lifting barriers to obtaining visas and green cards, and fortifying Dreamer protections. It has started the difficult work of tackling the immigration court backlog and addressing root causes driving Central American migration. Across the system, there are clear signs of progress.”
In a Jan. 19 webinar hosted by the Migration Policy Institute, experts and current and former federal immigration officials said the president has been moving at a brisk pace to make improvements to the nation’s immigration system.
MPI Senior Fellow Muzaffar Chisti noted that Biden issued six immigration-related executive orders on his first day in office and has since taken nearly 300 other actions on immigration — close to 90 of them aimed directly at dismantling Trump policies and procedures. “And most of this is unnoticed and unrecognized, but they have an impact on a large number of people in ways that are big and small.”
A key change has come from ending the aggressive posture of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement mandated by the Trump administration toward immigrants, Chisti said.
The former president’s attitude was that all immigrants already in the United States “should be looking over their shoulder every day,” he said. “That reality has fundamentally changed for every unauthorized person in the country” except for those who have committed crimes or recently gained entry illegally.
Large-scale employer raids seeking undocumented workers have ended, and long-term family detention “as we know it” has ceased, Chisti said. Overall, the number of migrants currently in detention is at 19,200, which is the lowest number since 1999.
In addition, ICE officers are directed to take aggravating and mitigating circumstances into account in individuals’ cases, which they were forbidden from doing by the previous administration. And U.S. military veterans deported during the Trump years can petition for re-entry, Chisti said.
Overall, the number of migrants currently in detention is at 19,200, which is the lowest number since 1999.
Biden also has expanded asylum eligibility to include migrants fleeing gang or cartel violence and removed Trump-era income and age requirements for immigrants seeking to live and work in the U.S. permanently, Chisti said. “This really affects millions of people and their ability to access green cards.”
The president has expanded the nationalities of immigrants eligible for Temporary Protected Status, including Venezuelans and Haitians, evacuated 124,000 refugees from Afghanistan and lifted travel bans for citizens of some Middle Eastern and African nations, he added.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has begun working with international partners to identify and address the root causes of migration. Taken together, these policies already are making a difference for immigrants, Chisti said. “When you look at how all of this impacts individuals, this is clearly significant.”
Webinar participant Esther Olavarria, a member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s security agency review team, added that the administration has made it easier for visa applicants to work while their cases are adjudicated and has raised the refugee cap to 125,000, the highest ceiling since 1993.
“There will be an all-out effort to meet that, but it is a very high ceiling,” Olavarria said.
She also praised the Biden administration for launching a family reunification task force to reunite immigrant families separated under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
Meanwhile, procedures for streamlining naturalization are under way and the White House is exploring ways to create rules to sustain DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
“Stay tuned,” Olavarria said. “There is other work under way to help vulnerable populations” at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But Olavarria and Chisti acknowledged the Biden administration has a long way to go on other immigration challenges, including getting meaningful immigration reform through Congress and the continued use of Title 42 and MPP.
Olavarria and Chisti acknowledged the Biden administration has a long way to go on other immigration challenges.
Biden sent the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to Congress on Jan. 20, 2021. While it passed the House, the measure was filibustered in the Senate and repeated efforts to include portions of it in the president’s budget plan also have failed.
The president has received heated criticism, however, for his continued use of Title 42, a previously obscure federal health code provision used by the Trump administration to cite COVID-19 as a reason to block immigrants, including asylum seekers, from entering the U.S.
Lorella Praeli, co-chair of We Are Home, slammed the Biden administration during the MPI webinar for going to court Jan. 19 to defend its continued use of the provision, arguing the rule is still necessary for minimizing the spread of the coronavirus.
The Biden White House also has continued the use of MPP after its initial attempt to end the practice was overturned by a federal court judge. Also known as “Remain in Mexico,” the protocols allow the U.S. to return asylum seekers and other immigrants to Mexico to await their immigration court proceedings.
The chorus of complaints also has come from clergy and religious groups.
“Today, 900 spiritual leaders and multiple faith-based and immigrant rights groups delivered a letter to the White House urging the Biden administration to immediately halt all efforts to expand immigrant detention,” the Interfaith Immigration Coalition announced Jan. 19.
Organizations including Church World Service, the UCC National Collaborative on Immigration, and the Detention Watch Network “expressed deep disappointment in the president for failing to keep his early promises to phase out private detention contracts.”
Advocates flagged two immigrant detention facilities in Pennsylvania, one of which is being reopened and the other expanded to hold immigrants awaiting court hearings.
“We are morally compelled to seek ways to dramatically reduce all forms of incarceration.”
“We are morally compelled to seek ways to dramatically reduce all forms of incarceration in favor of … solutions based around systems of accompaniment and community support,” the letter states. “As we turn to the year ahead, we urge you to reverse course and end overreliance on immigration detention by stopping new detention contracts and terminating current ICE contracts, investing in rights-respecting border management at the border, and committing to enacting just and humane immigration policies.”
Signatory Deborah Lee, executive director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, issued a statement adding that detaining immigrants while they await hearings violates basic human values of freedom and movement.
“We know effective community-based alternatives to detention exist. People can navigate their immigration proceedings while living at home, maintaining their employment, and receiving support from their family and wider community,” Lee said. “We ask the administration to stand with the faith community to find ways to reduce all forms of captivity in favor of non-carceral solutions.”
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