Biden-Harris and Immigration: Can Justice Be Achieved?

Peace Advocate May 2021

by Sunny Robinson

During his campaign, Biden promised substantive change in immigration policy and meaningful renewed aid for the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, from which a large percentage of current migrants are coming –assistance that they say would address the root causes of migration. He began boldly with the US Citizenship Act, proposing a pathway to citizenship for all 11 million unauthorized persons, despite its having a time frame of up to 8 more years to citizenship for millions already here 10-20 years – and then, only if you meet the criteria. (Reps. Clark, Trahan, McGovern, Achincloss, Moulton, and Keating co-sponsored). Soon this bill was broken into smaller bills, with the Dream and Promise Acts opening the possibilities for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) recipients, as well as the Farm Workforce Modernization Bill creating protections and a path to permanent residence for some immigrant farm workers. Passed in the House, these bills are currently stalled by the Senate. 

Ending the Muslim Ban and Child Separation

Biden did revoke the so-called “Muslim Ban,” which will allow refugee applications from previously prohibited countries, although statistics on visas granted are not currently available. Similarly, efforts began to end family separation, with families being detained or removed together. While not separation, this is still detention and can result in deportation. This system ought to be replaced with an assessment for entry conducted without any such kind of detention. While the numbers of unaccompanied minors held by Customs and Border Protection initially surged at the start of Biden’s presidency, they dropped by 90% by March 31st, though the numbers in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody are still more than 22,000. While ORR facilities are an improvement over CBP, they are still detention. ORR indicates that they are reuniting minors with parents or guardians in around 29 days; 40 days with other sponsors. On May 6th, four previously separated sets of parents and children were reunited, though more than 1,000 remain separated (ACLU). More than 5,000 children have been separated from their families and it is not yet clear whether applications from the other 4,000+ will be reconsidered.

Refugee and Visa Numbers

Biden promised to increase the number of refugees and work visa applicants accepted into the country. Initial, annual proposals were for 125,000 refugees, but were then decreased to 15,000, as during the last years of the prior administration. Ferocious, immediate objections have now increased the proposal to 62,500 refugees to be approved each year.  Multiple types of work visas are still under discussion, including so-called professional visas, and for seasonal agricultural workers. The fact that economists note the necessity of immigrant workers for recovery from the pandemic leaves one wondering what that says about the wages and benefits companies are willing to pay. Biden has also, appropriately, started to discuss mechanisms of admission for climate refugees, but criteria are not yet defined.

Pandemic Exclusions

Disastrously key in all of this is the fact that the Biden administration has left in place, and used, Rule 42 (which allows the US to refuse entry to anyone they deem could pose a health risk), expelling over 350,000 people since Biden took office. This is a horrifying continuation of inhumane and unnecessary practices from the prior administration. Similarly, the U.S. seems willing to keep pushing its borders further south, sending our militarized border patrol to train the border patrol and military in Mexico and Guatemala to enhance “security” on those borders so migration north is deterred (i.e. the right to seek asylum elsewhere is blocked). (See Todd Miller, Empire of Borders) 

Root Causes of Migration

Biden has promised U.S. aid will help address the root causes of migration and has tasked VP Kamala Harris to head up the effort. The kind and extent of assistance that is needed is massive. Additional security assistance is not the sole answer, as the failure of the so-called war on drugs illustrates. These programs, as constructed, have not stopped the flow of drugs to the U.S. Often they have put more guns and ammunition into the hands of corrupt military and police, and secondarily, into the hands of the drug cartels themselves. Massive numbers of jobs and agricultural assistance in the face of persistent drought and climate disruptions are needed. The focus of this assistance cannot be furthering U.S. corporations located in these countries or the extraction of mineral and other resources, but instead has to be job and agricultural assistance in the communities where people actually live. Young people will not stop migrating unless they can, in a safe and secure community, earn a decent living. People without food, education, employment, or those facing violence cannot simply be told to wait.

In a surprise, but highly commendable, move on May 20th, Biden ordered the end to ICE contracts with the Irwin Detention Center in Georgia and the Massachusetts Bristol County Correctional facility. Both facilities have been the subject of widespread complaints about abuse and ill treatment of detainees. The Irwin complaints center around unnecessary reproductive organ surgeries without fully informed or consenting women. The Bristol County complaints center around a May 2020 incident when excessive force was used to put down a detainee protest over Covid testing and the resulting solitary confinement. Local Massachusetts Immigration Advocates have long sought to end the ICE contracts with local sheriffs’ departments. The effort to end these contracts is includedin  the Safe Communities Act, active again this year before the Massachusetts Legislature.

What can one say about the current actions of the Biden-Harris Administration?

The Biden-Harris immigration strategy is perhaps not a bad beginning for such a large challenge, but is so far pretty inadequate. The administration also risks repeating some of the US’s most common mistakes related to detention, deportation, and assistance provided. The problem, however, does not rest solely with the Biden proposals, but also with the racist, conservative, and unjust responses from the Congress. 

The outcomes are up to us. How strenuously will each of us demand Biden and the Congress act to create a just and humane immigration policy, not just for Central Americans, but for peoples from all over the world!


Representative Primila Jayapal and 30+ others including Representatives McGovern and Pressley, released in January 2021 a proposal that outlines some of the many measures that are needed to make real and substantive immigration improvements. Named “The Roadmap to Freedom Resolution, it is a bold, progressive vision for immigration reform that calls for: 

  • “A pathway to citizenship for 11 million people 
  • “An end to inhumane and unjust family detention 
  • “Investment in humane, community-based alternatives to detention and demilitarizing the border 
  • “Increased protections for immigrant workers.”  

To learn more about this new effort go to: Freedom-Resolution_Final.pdf 



–Sunny Robinson is an active member of MAPA’s  Latin American and Caribbean Working  Group