by Sunny Robinson
Immigrant families and their allies have many reasons to be hopeful that the Biden administration’s immigration policies will be more humane and just than those of his predecessors. In his first day in office, the new president signed executive orders that, among other positive steps, announced a 100-day moratorium on deportations, lifted the “Muslim Ban,” and ended work on a border wall that was wasting money, destroying the desert, and proclaiming to the world that the US government was harshly indifferent to the plight of those fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries.
However, even modest pieces of what Biden’s team has promised will not be sustained unless a broad coalition of anti-racist, justice-seeking immigration advocates pushes for them and organizes to ensure that all the positive changes are secured in legislation. How do we build that pressure on the current Congress?
We face a daunting task in attempting to undo the harm done in prior administrations, especially Trump’s, and instead create policies that are just and anti-racist. Where to start?
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals: On Day One, Biden began the process of restoring the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This was a truly important announcement and among the measures more likely to receive strong support. More than one million young people, by some estimates, were brought to the US by their parents when they were young and know no other country or language than that of the US. There are currently about 600,000 people in this program and others who now can apply. We must raise the questions: What will be the new criteria for eligibility? Will they still include school, employment, military, and/or educational requirements; fees to be paid; absence of convictions? The most common convictions, if any, are for driving without a license, because, in 36 of the 50 states, unauthorized persons are not eligible for a driver’s license.
Reinstate DACA for sure; but review the criteria and eliminate those that make no sense in light of who these young people are, the length of time they have been here already, and the realities of the moment including the many who are and have been essential workers during the pandemic. Some assessments indicate 30% of health care workers are immigrants, whether “authorized” persons or not. And a huge percentage of US agricultural workers are immigrants, whether holding visas or not. A strong positive for DACA is the promise of immediate access to a Green Card and then movement toward citizenship in three years. However, we must insist that they be eligible for citizenship sooner, given that many DACA youth and now young adults have already been in the US for 10-20 years!
Temporary Protected Status: The Biden Plan also advocates creating a path to citizenship for those here on Temporary Protected Status (TPS), whether they are fleeing countries impacted by war or by natural disasters. The Plan also allows immediate access to Green Cards and thus opens the door to legal employment. But citizenship lies another three years beyond that. Again, a review of criteria, as well as the current conditions in the country of origin, needs to be undertaken as swiftly as possible. All TPS countries and individuals will be subject to review. Liberians, rightly, have received an immediate extension of their TPS timeframe.
End family separation and reunite families: Two other programs we must secure are: Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) – that is, approving a path to citizenship for the parents of children born here – and the Central American Minors Program, which would allow parents with legal status to bring their children from Central America. These, along with reuniting children and parents separated at the border, would fulfill the promise of ending the separation of families. Some separated children have been siphoned off into foster care and adoption circles with no records of who or where their parents are; likely most have been deported back to their home countries. And what recompense will families need to heal the years-long wounds of having been thus separated?
The Biden Administration pledges their support for these measures. We must assure that they and Congress actualize them.
Citizenship: Similarly, the Biden plan speaks to creating a pathway to citizenship for the greatest majority of the 10-11 million “unauthorized” immigrants in the country; and well it should. It notes nearly half are here on visas they overstayed rather than having entered illegally. A very large percentage of this immigrant population has been here a median number of 14 years. Many work in essential roles in health care, food service, agriculture, construction, and technology. Many work at or below minimum wage with few if any benefits or in high tech at wages below those of their US counterparts. How do we open up access to citizenship quickly? What are the criteria? Why should they have to wait 5 years to obtain a Green Card, then 3 more to citizenship if they have already been here 14 or more years? How does USCIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services) get enough personnel to review and approve applications in an efficient and unbiased manner? And how do we secure these measures in the current Congress where the legislation will have to be passed?
Research noted in the Biden Plan suggests that the total annual contribution of foreign-born workers is roughly $2 trillion! Other projections note the potential addition of $445 billion to GDP over ten years with a more open immigration policy. Will these economic figures be enough to convince legislators, whether Democrat or Republican, to set aside their racial biases and approve such legislation? Are these benefits to the economy sufficient to get Republicans to approve citizenship for up to 11 million new, mostly Democratic, voters? Are we, in the progressive movement, strong enough and organized enough to secure the support of legislators, especially those in the Senate?
End detention, reinstate the international right to seek asylum when fleeing violence including gang and domestic violence; end Remain in Mexico, release detainees, allow asylum seekers who have passed a credible fear interview, and those already held in Mexico, to enter the US and receive needed social service supports. Indeed, these measures have already been started with the announcement that asylum applications are again possible and the Remain in Mexico program is ended. But those held in Mexico are still in Mexico and encouraged by the Biden Administration to remain there for now. At least 65,000 people were held in Mexico; more than 30,000 are estimated to still be waiting, having not given up and returned to their country of origin. How quickly can the new administration gear up, train, staff and deploy the enormous number of people needed to review these applications? Will the Congress approve the monies needed to meet the need?
All these steps can and should be initiated by executive action. But to secure the long-term security for migrants and create a path to citizenship will require the support of Congress. Can we build that support – insist on these actions?
The Biden Plan speaks to the need to address root causes of migration: “violence and insecurity, lack of economic opportunity; and corrupt governance.” It makes only veiled reference to the newer layers of problems created through climate disruption. How is aid money directed to the people of countries with large numbers of migrants and not just to the police and military, not just to the large corporations, agribusinesses, road and dam builders?
Central to achieve these measures is the need to reverse the kind of US involvement and interference in other countries that has occurred over centuries: policies from outright coups, to military training and arms, to facilitation of economic activities that benefit US corporations and multinational extractive endeavors. The Obama administration funded Plan Merida/The War on Drugs and the Alliance for Progress, which on balance funneled so many more arms into the police and military, and did so little to stem the flow of drugs to the US, that the most lucrative opportunity for too many youth continued to be selling drugs despite the increased violence. How do we assure that genuine economic opportunities are designed, supported, and utilized by local communities and then funding legislation constructed to support those ends?
Taking responsibility for past US actions and fostering different relationships is enormous. Let us begin. Write your Representative and Senators insisting on all the steps highlighted above. And come work with us in MAPA’s Latin America and Caribbean Working Group.
—Sunny Robinson is a member of Mass. Peace Action’s Latin America Working Group, the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, School of the Americas Watch, and Co-Chair of the Gloucester Coalition for the Prevention of Domestic Abuse. She has traveled to Latin America extensively.
For a summary and explanation of Biden’s plan, see: